Afraid of a veto, the GOP uses Constitutional Amendments

The latest effort to limit abortion access in Pennsylvania is moving through the legislature, this time in the form of a constitutional amendment, in an attempt to avoid a gubernatorial veto.

And as recently as the 2021 primary, Pennsylvania voters approved two ballot measures limiting the Governor’s power to declare and renew a state of emergency. These measures were constitutional amendments advanced by Republicans angry over Gov. Wolf’s response to the pandemic. They were harbingers of how the GOP-controlled Legislature plans to pursue its policy objectives in the future, by essentially circumventing the checks and balances needed for a true bipartisan legislative process.

Republicans are increasingly using constitutional amendments to push through policies that would otherwise be vetoed by Gov. Wolf and that are opposed by most Democrats, thereby making a veto overturn (which requires a two-thirds majority of the legislature) very unlikely. They know that presenting an amendment as a ballot question nearly guarantees it will be approved. This happens because voters rarely reject amendments – only six of 49 since 1968. And the majority were approved in off-year elections when typically, a small fraction of eligible voters go to the polls. Indeed, the amendments limiting the Governor’s emergency powers were passed during the 2021 primary with just over 25% of registered voters casting a ballot.

This past December, House Republicans escalated this tactic by passing an omnibus bill that includes four new constitutional revisions, with nearly every Democrat voting against it. The original bill included one amendment to change the way Pennsylvania elects the lieutenant governor. Two of the added amendments relate to the GOP’s big lie that the 2020 presidential election was rigged—creating the need for some sort of “government-issued identification” before you can vote and requiring the state auditor general to review elections and voter rolls for accuracy—voting suppression measures that Gov. Wolf already vetoed in a previous GOP-sponsored bill.

Another amendment added to the omnibus bill would allow a simple majority in the legislature to override executive orders and administrative regulations—clearly a reaction by the Republicans to policies they oppose, including the recent announcement that Pennsylvania would join a coalition of states in regulating carbon emissions.

While the process for amending the constitution is designed to be slow (i.e., proposed amendments need to pass both the state House and Senate in two concurrent sessions before they appear on the ballot), Republicans currently control the legislature and are using the process as a power grab to avoid the Executive Branch of check and balances. Other constitutional amendments that Republicans are pursuing would give legislators more power in appellate judge elections and in the state redistricting process. If these bills pass both houses this year and again in the next session, voters could face up to six ballot questions in 2023.

Republicans want us to believe that the amendment process is good government because it gives voters the ability to set policy. But as Khalif Ali, executive director of Common Cause of Pennsylvania, has said:

“It’s very partisan in nature and really reflects the attempt to advance an agenda that was unsuccessful through typical, ethical democratic means.”

While the Republicans remain in control in Harrisburg, they will continue to use the amendment process to circumvent legislative checks and balances and circumvent executive power. This is why it’s so important for Democrats to get out and vote in every primary and general election—even ones they think “don’t matter.” We need to keep Republicans in check, and we need to flip the legislature so that these tactics won’t work.