Vacant seats put Pa. House in disarray

Democrats won a majority of seats in November’s midterm elections. But one lawmaker’s death and two resignations have thrown the chamber into chaos.
Pennsylvania state Rep. Joanna McClinton (D) was set to become the first woman to lead the state House after Democrats claimed control. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The battle for control of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives rages nearly a month after the midterm elections, as Democrats lay claim to a majority and Republicans accuse their rivals of a “paperwork insurrection.”

Democratic candidates won control of 102 of the 203 seats in the lower chamber last month, seizing the majority on the strength of Gov.-elect Josh Shaprio’s (D) coattails. 

But the party will hold only 99 seats when new legislators are sworn in, fewer than the 101 seats Republicans will hold. Three Democratic seats — one held by a state legislator who died and two held by legislators who won higher office — will be vacant when legislators meet to organize the state House on Jan. 3.

House Democratic leader Joanna McClinton, who would be the chamber’s presiding officer in a Democratic majority, staged a ceremonial swearing-in on the House floor last week. Under Pennsylvania law, the presiding officer has the authority to call special elections to fill vacancies. McClinton set those special elections for Feb. 7.

“Pennsylvanians cast their ballots in the free and fair 2022 General Election. The results of that election are not in dispute and in the majority of legislative districts — 102 out of 203 — the people of Pennsylvania voted to elect a Democrat to represent them in the House of Representatives,” McClinton said in a statement. “Pennsylvania’s voters have spoken, and the will of the people is the ultimate authority in this Commonwealth.”

But on Friday, House Republican leader Bryan Cutler asked a state court to put those elections on hold. Cutler’s lawsuit argues that McClinton does not have the authority to issue calls for special elections. 

“Today’s illegitimate power grab by Rep. McClinton, who was sworn-in without notice and in complete secret, is a paperwork insurrection typical of a Democratic Party that is constantly displaying that their last two years of rhetoric on respect for institutions has been nothing but crocodile tears,” Cutler said in his own statement. “Rep. McClinton’s actions are an affront to our democratic institutions.”

Cutler’s term as Speaker of the House ended Nov. 30, when this year’s legislative session ended. The Clerk of the House will preside over the body when it meets Jan. 3 to elect a new speaker.

Though Democrats won one more seat than Republicans this year, there will be more Republicans who are sworn in on the legislature’s first day.

State Rep. Tony DeLuca (D) died in October, a few weeks before he won a new term in office. State Rep. Austin Davis (D) won election to the lieutenant governor’s office, while state Rep. Summer Lee (D) won a seat in Congress. Davis and Lee resigned last week. 

All three districts – in Allegheny County, home of Pittsburgh – elected Democrats by two-to-one margins in November, In the lawsuit, Cutler said DeLuca’s death before Election Day means that Democrats cannot claim to have ever had a majority of living members.

Before his term as speaker ended, Cutler had issued his own call for a special election to fill DeLuca’s seat, also on Feb. 7, the first day such an election is allowed under state law. 

Acting Secretary of State Leigh Chapman, appointed by outgoing Gov. Tom Wolf (D), rejected Cutler’s call and accepted McClinton’s.

Tensions between Cutler and McClinton were already high before the latest dust-up. Cutler castigated House Democrats for claiming a majority in spite of DeLuca’s death.

The Legislative Reference Bureau, the nonpartisan agency that serves members of both parties, issued an advisory opinion last week saying neither party could claim a majority of the 203 seats.