For years, bills have been introduced in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly to reduce its size. Thankfully, all failed. Pennsylvania’s legislature may be too small.
True, Pennsylvania’s is among the largest, costliest legislatures in America, but, although reducing it is widely thought to be a solution, it isn’t necessarily the correct one. Depending upon how it’s done, increasing the size of Pennsylvania’s lower chamber could improve representation for everyone and make government more responsive to more citizens.
Increasing the size of the state House would modestly shrink the average number of constituents represented by each member, benefit rural constituents who are already geographically removed from district offices, make gerrymandering more difficult, and allow for the infusion of new talent into the legislature.
Additionally, while the current arrangement ensures that, as examples, Philadelphia conservatives and Perry County liberals are under- or unrepresented in the State House, more districts would afford both better opportunities, statistically, at least, to influence their representation.
The United States Constitution created the U.S. Senate and Electoral College to prevent post-Colonial America’s populous coastal enclaves from enacting public policy detrimental to the rural interior. That’s why modern California and New York cannot dictate policy to Alabama and Montana, and couldn’t elect Hillary Clinton president.
Pennsylvanians need political buffers, too. Only Pennsylvania’s urban and suburban areas, party caucus leadership (fewer cats to herd), and special interest lobbyists (fewer cats to buy) would benefit from downsizing.
A smaller Pennsylvania legislature would erode rural interests while prioritizing those of urban/suburban voters. But, increasing the size of the state legislature would have the effect of limiting the ability of Philadelphia, Allegheny and their contiguous counties to control state resources at the expense of smaller and rural counties.
Adding reps would increase the number of inner city districts, too, but those would crowd neighboring districts toward the suburbs, push suburban representatives out farther into more rural areas, while adding rural districts with little risk of suburban dilution.
Reducing the size of the House is usually proposed as a cost-saving measure. Currently, each representative in the legislature’s lower chamber serves about 62,000 constituents. The legislature’s total costs exceed $300 million annually, or about 0.009 percent of the total state budget, so the average cost per House/Senate district slightly exceeds $1 million.
But, head count aside, significant costs of maintaining the legislature are fixed, so the actual direct cost per district is much lower. However, there are ways to control or lower district costs even while adding representatives.
Pennsylvania’s legislature is ripe for reform. Public office was never meant to be a career. Pennsylvania could return political sinecures to public service by making the legislature part-time and by reducing members’ compensation. At minimum, Pennsylvania should eliminate legislative pensions and lifetime health care benefits. The Commonwealth’s Constitution didn’t provide for them, and pension/benefits elimination would have much the same effect as term limits.
In addition, members’ per diems should be restricted, and reporting/oversight of authorized personal spending strictly administered. Scrap seniority rules — secret balloting by the majority party’s caucus should assign committee chairs. The Commonwealth’s rules on ethics, campaign finance and lobbying should be strengthened and rigorously enforced.
The real solutions to Pennsylvania’s fiscal problems lie in reform, including in the legislature. While we’re waiting, size matters.