With Republicans now firmly in control of both the Pennsylvania Senate and the Pennsylvania House of Representatives it would seem the time is finally at hand for enactment of a reform agenda. Three election cycles have cleansed the General Assembly of most of the legislators who were complicit in the infamous middle-of-the-night pay raise that triggered the current reform movement.
But change can be good and change can be bad. President Barack Obama was elected on the themes of hope and change, but when many Americans found out what type of change he had in mind they recoiled in horror – and last Tuesday handed his party historic election losses.
The same scenario could play out in Harrisburg. Within hours of reclaiming control of the state house, speaker-in-waiting Sam Smith (R-Jefferson) held a news conference to discuss the agenda he and the new Republican majority plan to pursue. Among Mr. Smith’s priorities is reducing the size of the legislature.
On the face of it, reducing the size of the General Assembly seems like a good idea. The Pennsylvania legislature is clearly dysfunctional and in some cases outright corrupt. It is one of the largest and most expensive legislative bodies in the nation. For the last eight years in a row it has failed to perform on time its most important constitutional duty – passing a state budget.
But is reducing the size of the legislature really change we can believe in?
Fewer legislators might save some money, but even more money could be saved by returning the General Assembly to part-time status, in the process cutting salaries and eliminating pensions and perks. The state constitution actually only authorizes the payment of salary and travel expenses, so such a move would have the novel impact of actually bringing operations of the legislature into conformity with our governing document.
Fewer legislators also would result in less accountability to taxpayers and more dependence upon special interests. Cutting the number of senators and representatives would mean the size of their districts would become larger.
That means both more geographic territory for a legislator to cover and more people to serve. It is easy to personally talk to your local township supervisor, not hard to talk to your state house member, a bit more difficult to get a personal audience with a state senator, and congressmen are even more remote. The bigger the district, the more inaccessible the officeholder becomes.
Larger districts also mean more voters for candidates to reach when running for office. Reaching more voters costs more money. Having to raise more money requires getting larger sums from special interests. Thus the current grassroots nature of Pennsylvania’s state house districts would be replaced by dependence on those who can give large campaign contributions.
The fewer the members in a legislative chamber the more easily they are controlled by leadership. Pennsylvania’s General Assembly already suffers from heavy-handed leadership; that is what gave rise to the Bonusgate and capitol corruption scandals. Fewer members, more dependent on leadership for the tools needed to retain their offices is nothing more than a prescription for further centralizing power in the hands of a few. Thus, Representative Smith’s proposal for "reform" is actually little more than a clever move to increase the power of legislative leadership.
If the new Republican majority seriously wants to enact reforms it can begin by taking itself out of the process. Compromised by personal interest we cannot realistically expect incumbent representatives to make the hard choices necessary to bring structural change to the General Assembly. That is why the only route to serious change is for the house and the senate to authorize the placement on the ballot of a referendum to call a limited state constitutional convention to deal with governance issues. Only then can we truly put we the people of Penn’s Woods back in charge.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected].)
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