HARRISBURG (AP) -- A panel of lawmakers voted unanimously Monday in favor of sharply limiting the secretive and powerful Rules Committee. That change would reduce the ability of leaders to shape legislation in the Democratic-controlled House. The proposal by the Speaker's Commission on Legislative Reform, similar to one it rejected five days ago, would make it much more common for legislative disputes between the House and the Senate to be resolved by a conference committee made up of lawmakers from both chambers. If the entire House adopts the change, it would prevent the Rules Committee, dominated by the majority party's leaders, from making substantial amendments to bills the Senate sends over for concurrence. "We are severely curtailing the power of the Rules Committee, almost making it nil," said commission co-chair Rep. Josh Shapiro, D-Montgomery. Larry Frankel, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, called the Rules Committee recommendation "probably the most significant change that could have been made in how bills become law in this commonwealth." In the other major vote Monday, Democrats defeated a measure to select at random the members of the House's Ethics Committee, a body that has been criticized for inactivity. The committee of eight members, appointed by legislative leaders, investigates alleged violations by lawmakers of lobbying regulations, House rules or the Legislative Code of Ethics. Seven Democrats voted against the Ethics proposal, while all 12 Republicans voted in favor. House Speaker Dennis M. O'Brien's reform commission's rules require nine members of each party to vote in favor of a proposal for it to be included in a package of reforms the House will consider the week of March 12. "I was a little disappointed, but we're going to have another bite at the apple," said the ethics measure's sponsor, Rep. Tom Tangretti, D-Westmoreland. The commission will return to the ethics issue during a second phase that will follow next month's vote on the House rules, he said. The commission also voted Monday to add language to the House rules to cover members indicted or convicted of crimes and to ban smoking in the House-controlled portions of the Capitol complex, including members' offices. Democrats defeated a four-consecutive-term limit on serving as chairman of a single committee. The panel voted to prohibit members from operating nonprofit entities established mainly to collect state grant money and enshrined in the rules an informal agreement between the parties not to air House-funded "public service announcements" that feature members' names within two months of elections in even-numbered years. "A new era is upon us in the state House," Shapiro said at the end of the eight-hour session. The commission's second phase will begin shortly after the rules changes are voted on by the House, he said. In votes taken over the past three weeks, the commission has endorsed making all House financial records available to the public by e-mail and ending sessions at 11 p.m., absent "exigent circumstances." The commission has also voted to end the practice of tabling an amendment without tabling the entire legislation, to stop allowing members to vote by proxy while in the Harrisburg area on official business and to prohibit private vehicle leases for legislators. It also recommended limiting to 90 days how long lawmakers can take to submit expenses for reimbursement.

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