Politically Uncorrected: Right Problem, Wrong Solution

PA House chamber floor view
The PA House floor

Pennsylvania may be, as one wit put it, “the place where all good reforms go to die,” but this well-deserved characterization of the Keystone state doesn’t mean reform proposals are scarce. It’s just that few of them ever get adopted. As Winston Churchill might have described state reform efforts: never have so many produced so little so often.

The latest example is the various proposals introduced that would reduce the size of the Pennsylvania legislature. So far in the current session, three bills have been introduced that would trim the size of the state House (now 203 members), the state Senate (now 50 members) or both the House and the Senate.

The most widely discussed is House Speaker Sam Smith’s proposal (HB 1234) which would reduce the size of the House from 203 to 153. But Berks County Democratic Senator Judy Schwank would cut the House even deeper to 121 members while shrinking the state Senate to 40 members (SB 336). And Beaver County Republican Senator Elder Vogel while likewise cutting the House to 121 would downside the Senate to 30 members (SB 324).

Proposals reducing the size of the Pennsylvania legislature are not rare. In the past 50 years dozens of them have been introduced. Few if any legislative session since the late 1960’s has lacked at least one bill to downsize the General Assembly.

Most of these legislative downsizing proposals argued that the legislature is either too big to be efficient or costs too much to maintain. Indeed, the General Assembly is second largest in the country and expends an estimated $300 million annually.

So, advocating a smaller legislature has become the political equivalent of baseball, motherhood and apple pie. Moreover, it speaks to our abiding frustration with government and politicians. Maybe we can’t actually do anything to make them behave better – but at least we can fix it so we have fewer of them.

We all will feel a little better floating these doomed proposals around. And what’s wrong with that?

Actually there is much wrong with it. For example, much has been made of the potential savings of a smaller legislature, but the reality is that we could abolish the legislature entirely and only save about one percent of the state’s current $28 billion-dollar budget.

Worse, perhaps, reducing the House could actually increase the public’s alienation from government. Currently each House member represents about 60,000 people, creating districts small enough so that people can actually know and interact with their representative. In an increasingly large and remote government this is no trivial benefit.

So reducing the size of the legislature will neither save an enormous amount of money nor restore the public’s confidence in government. The proposed reform is actually another one of those feel-good reforms we have become too fond of recently. It promises much, would deliver little and takes our mind off the real reforms that should be enacted.

Fortunately there are several that would really help. Consider just these three.

1. Staff reforms – Currently, the General Assembly employs around 3,000 people. Some reformers estimate the legislature employs at least twice as many workers as necessary to perform the legitimate work of the legislature. Much worse than the staffing bloat, however, is the way personnel is organized – by partisan caucus leading to the kind of corruption uncovered in the notorious “ bonus-gate” public corruption convictions. The obvious down side can be avoided simply by organizing most legislative staffers into a non-partisan, nonpolitical central operation such as the congressional budget office (CBO) or the Library of Congress. Many legislative staffers are professionals, but too many are political. Why not apply civil service to many of them similar to the employees in the executive branch?

2. Ethics reform – Legislative ethics rules and procedures are completely ineffective in sanctioning unethical behavior. Legislators have no fear of being disciplined for illegal or unethical behavior. In recent decades at least 30 legislators have been prosecuted successfully for various legal and ethical lapses. Yet not one received so much as a reprimand much less a severe penalty. Related is the lack of a gift ban. Currently, legislators may accept gifts of any value as long as the gift is reported. Even Congress, no paragon of ethical behavior, limits gifts. Pennsylvania does not–giving some truth to the hoary maxim that Pennsylvanians enter politics not to do good but to do well.

3. Campaign Finance Laws – Pennsylvania effectively has no campaign finance restrictions, except to ban direct union and corporate contributions. An individual or a political action committee may contribute any amount of money to any state or local candidate for any office. Moreover, the recipient of an unlimited contribution can basically use it for virtually any purpose, subject to a legal definition so broad– “to influence an election”– as to permit expenditures for almost any purpose. Though contributions must be reported, the campaign finance laws would be laughable, if they did not matter so much. Arguably they alone are responsible for more state corruption than any other factor.

None of these reforms are the slick, glitzy “feel good” proposals likely to dominate news coverage or grab headlines. What they do represent, however, are workable reforms that would restore a measure of public trust and respect for state government.

Can we afford to do less in the present climate of voter cynicism, anger and alienation?


Madonna is Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Young is a former Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Penn State University and Managing Partner of Michael Young Strategic Research. Madonna and Young encourage responses to the column and can be reached, respectively, at terry.madonna@fandm.edu and drmikelyoung@comcast.net.

9 Responses

  1. Three simple things will take care of a lot of problems in Harrisburg.

    1. Cut the legislative year to 6 months only. Stop this from being a full time job which it was never intended to be.

    2. Repeal the act (51?) which allowed for greedy pensions and automatic COLAs. Life is good in the statehouse.

    3. Make the legislature adhere to Article II, § 8 of the PA Constitution. “Compensation. The members of the General Assembly shall receive such salary and mileage for regular and special sessions as shall be fixed by law, and no other compensation whatever, whether for service upon committee or otherwise. No member of either House shall during the term for which he may have been elected, receive any increase of salary, or mileage, under any law passed during such term.”

  2. Very well thought out and written. Will never happen in, at least in the next few years, but nice to think about!

  3. Reducing the legislature will only concentrate power in the hands of an even smaller and greedier few who will care even less about the citizens they represent. Also remember that constituent service is a big part of the legislature’s duty, or at least it should be, so theoretically constituents of these bigger districts will have to travel farther and fight harder when they need help and information on dealing with the state — if the offices still deign to handle such things at all. Things like… oh, you know… things like (if the Republicans have their way) getting through red tape to get a Voter ID? Or maybe we pesky undesirable citizens should just be forced out of voting altogether and crown the ultimate winners of these super-districts King For Life. There are a lot of old boy state reps and state senators of both parties that would like that. A LOT.

  4. Any proposed constitutional amendment to shrink the legislature should include language to reform the redistricting process. Imagine the power eliminating seats would give to the leadership who currently control redistricting.

  5. It’s a distraction – – nothing more. True reform (as Madonna and Young indicate) will be based (if it ever occurs) on eliminating caucus influences. For starters, we should take away each caucus’s right (?) to have a multi-million dollar, taxpayer funded legal slush fund; also, it’s necessary to create checks and balances for legislators’ spending.

  6. Additionally, reapportionment must be taken out of the hands of a few politicians in Harrisburg. Another question – Why are PA House and Senate members exempt from the Sunshine Law? The parties go behind closed doors every day before they cast votes on the floor. They go into their caucus rooms, discuss the days agenda and I’m sure the leadership instructs the membership how to vote. Then they probably cast on count votes on the important bills they will be voting on. WHY IS THIS ALLOWED?

  7. In this digital age, comunication to PA residents can be done electronically. I would like to see a poll of how many residents know their representatives let alone have personel interaction. Reducing the size will not aleinate the public. We can’t get any more disgusted with the way our state is being run. Houses of CA, TX, NY, IL represent over 140,000 residents per representative and over 250,000 residents per senator. Cutting the size of our state government might invoke only a small amout of savings but any savings is better than none. I would like to see the size cut to 50 senators and 121 representatives along with the Staff reform proposals.

  8. What we should do is publicly finance elections thus reducing corruption and equalizing the playing field for all candidates, hopefully further reducing party dominance!

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