Welcome to Black History Month in Pa., where rules can be ignored

3 x 2 Pa. State House legislators
The Pennsylvania Capitol Building, where rules seem to be regularly ignored.

BLACK HISTORY MONTH, celebrated each February, routinely draws attention from legislative bodies at all levels.

Why, just last week the state House unanimously passed a resolution in recognition of Black History Month, honoring Army Brig. Gen. Charles Hamilton, an African American.

Never mind that he's not a historical figure but is very much alive at the Philadelphia Navy Yard as Defense Logistics Agency troop support commander.

Still a nice gesture, one of many such measures passed each year.

But the same House that consistently embraces gestures toward diversity consistently ignores its own directives.

In March 2007, the House unanimously adopted Rule 1(a) to ensure fairness in hiring and contracting.

The rule calls for an equal-opportunity officer and an advisory committee to develop and implement diverse hiring and purchasing policies for the House.

It was part of "reform" efforts aimed at improving (let's be honest) one of the worst legislative bodies on the planet.

The rule's been reaffirmed at the start of every two-year session since 2007.

But in nearly nine years since its adoption, it's never been implemented.

Not as if it's hard to find. It's right below Rule 1, atop a list of 78 rules, followed by a list of 30-plus rules governing (cough) "ethical conduct."

And, remember, the House is a big deal: budget of $200 million; 203 members; staff of more than 1,250.

For context, Central Pennsylvania is white-bread world and legislative staff reflects that. Also, face it, parties have different demographics, so that's also reflected.

A top Democratic staffer estimates that 95 of 633 caucus employees are people of color. A senior GOP staffer says that only two of roughly 650 Republican employees are people of color.

Over time, the House hires lots of people, spends lots of tax dollars, so you'd think it'd use basic diversity policies that already exist in every state agency - especially because it has a specific rule.

(If you're wondering, the Senate has no such rule, which is pretty much like having a rule that's ignored; but at least the Senate, in this instance, isn't breaking its own rules.)

The House rule says that the speaker "shall designate" an equal-opportunity officer. It dictates that there "shall be" an advisory committee. Yet under four speakers - three Republican, one Democrat - it hasn't happened.

Oh, there's been talk. One staffer even assumed the post without direction, extra compensation, any action, or an advisory committee for about nine months back in 2007.

The experience was such that the staffer declined to be interviewed for this column.

Where's officialdom on all this?

Mostly bobbing and weaving over the rule's vagueness, whether the post should be salaried, the makeup of the committee, how exactly both operate, and so on. Stuff, in other words, that could have been addressed before adopting the rule.

And there's hardly an outcry.

The Legislative Black Caucus - mostly Philly lawmakers, not exactly a top-notch advocacy group - is largely quiet about the rule being ignored.

Caucus director Brandon Flood: "To be honest, I think it was just a general oversight."

House Democratic Caucus spokesman Bill Patton says Democratic House Leader Frank Dermody and Black Caucus members met with GOP Speaker Mike Turzai several months ago: nothing since.

Turzai says that he can't speak for former speakers but that he's been "proactive on this since before I was speaker." He says that although implementing the rule has been hampered by the (non-)budget process, "we need to accomplish it."

Philly Rep. Curtis Thomas writes every session to whoever is speaker, seeking "to put some meaning into the rule." He says he's "most certainly disappointed" nothing's happened but "cautiously optimistic" something will.

So it goes.

This rule-that-really-isn't-a-rule clearly doesn't reach the level of most legislative sins: members prosecuted for taking cash bribes; failure to get a budget; tolerating ghost-voting; allowing members to collect expenses without receipts; being too damn big, overpaid and overperked, you know the long list.

And it isn't solely a racial thing. Fair hiring/contracting impacts women, the LGBT community, the disabled, minority-owned businesses, etc.

But it is symbolic of institutional enmity, the kind that panders without providing action and demonstrates disregard for its own regulations.

Passing resolutions honoring diversity is fine. Showing resolve to ensure diversity is better.

So welcome to Black History Month. Just don't look to Harrisburg for lessons.

Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer