Is it Going to be Different This Time?
In 2006, in the wake of the infamous pay-raise scandal, two dozen incumbent Pennsylvania legislators were defeated at the polls, including the two highest-ranking Republicans in the state Senate. The voters’ wrath had also deterred an unusually high number of incumbents from even seeking reelection that year.
In January 2007, 55 freshmen legislators (or 20 percent of the General Assembly) and a new Democratic House majority strode into the Capitol, determined to clean up Harrisburg. The Era of Reform was born.
But what began with a bang ended with a whimper. The Speaker’s Reform Commission deteriorated into a dog and pony show. Besides an open-records law with significant weaknesses, no substantive reforms were signed into law.
Then, in the summer of 2008, Harrisburg was rocked again by the "Bonusgate" scandal, which ultimately saw then-Attorney General Tom Corbett secure the indictments of two former House speakers and several others for misappropriating millions of taxpayer dollars for political purposes. To no one’s surprise, the seesaw tilted back to Republicans last fall. Led by Corbett, the GOP recaptured the House and the governor’s mansion, giving them complete control of state government once again.
Having served in the House from 1981 to 1989, I saw firsthand that the culture in the Capitol is controlled by an "iron triangle" of career politicians, bureaucrats, and lobbyists. It is a culture of self-service, not public service. And history has shown that neither party – whether in the minority or the majority – is impervious to it.
But this most recent transfer of political power in Harrisburg offers more hope than most for breaking the iron triangle. Of this year’s class of 29 House freshmen, five have committed to a "no pension" pledge put before them by my organization, Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, an independent nonprofit dedicated to breaking the iron triangle. These newcomers are refusing a perk that helps ensnare would-be reformers in a career of perpetuating the status quo.
Prior to this year, only two legislators – Sen. Mike Folmer and Rep. Rosemarie Swanger, both Republicans from Lebanon County – refused a pension. Now joining Folmer and Swanger as ambassadors for a citizen legislature are Reps. George Dunbar (R., Westmoreland), Rick Saccone (R., Allegheny), Justin Simmons (R., Lehigh), Dan Truitt (R., Chester), and Stephen Bloom (R., Cumberland). This is a capable, principled, and persuasive group.
To be clear, sweeping change is not imminent in Harrisburg. The iron triangle will not pass gently into oblivion, and the reformers are still vastly outnumbered by the General Assembly’s "old bulls." The citizen legislators must increase their ranks, which will take at least a few more election cycles, and the people must vigilantly monitor the actions and votes of their legislators.
My organization will continue mobilizing public support for reform initiatives such as overhauling the public pension system, enacting term limits, making the legislature part-time, ending the legislative grants known as "walking-around money," auditing the General Assembly, and eliminating per-diem payments for legislators. We will expose lawmakers who thwart these reforms. And we will keep trying to purge the General Assembly of those who are hopelessly entrenched in the iron triangle.
John Kennedy is a co-founder and the chairman of Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania. For more information, see www.EmpowerPA.org.