Reform? No, Not Really

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

A few weeks ago the State House took a step that many believe was courageous – they voted to cut the size of the Pennsylvania House from 203 members to 153, and voted to cut the state senate from 50 to 38 senators. The idea that a legislative body would cut members does seem, on the surface, courageous.

It was done, according to Republican Party Chairman Robert Gleason, as part of an effort "to protect taxpayer dollars by pushing legislation to ensure government operates more efficiently." The idea purports to work like this: Pennsylvania has the most expensive legislature in the country – if we cut the size of the legislature by 25%, we can save 25% of the costs. The logic then goes on to assume that this will mean a better, more responsive government.

But that’s Hogwash – across the board.

The idea that the driving the cost of the legislature is the number of its members is one of those things that looks obvious at first glance but in reality could not be farther from the truth. Put simply, more members must mean more cost, Right?

Wrong. The size of the legislature is not the root cause of exploding legislative costs; the real driver of those costs is the staff that supports those elected officials, not the officials themselves.

Consider this contrast: New Hampshire, with a population that is almost 1/10th of Pennsylvania has a State House with 400 members – and in total costs less than 25% of Pennsylvania’s legislative budget. The reasons are varied, but at the core is the dramatically lower number of staffers on the payroll.

It is almost inarguable that Pennsylvania’s legislature is overstaffed. In fact, Pennsylvania has more legislative staffers than any other state – more than Texas, California and New York. There are an average of over 11 staffers per member in both chambers, and almost 200 of them make more money than their elected bosses.

The explosion of legislative staffers started when the legislature moved from part time to full time; prior to then, the ratio was closer to 2 staffers for every member. Just 20 years ago that ratio was 6 staffers per member.

The size of these legislative staffs – I was part of a staff that was more than 20 people strong when I worked for the Majority leader – is where the true costs lie. If we want to control the cost of the legislature, we need to start with a real reform, like cutting the legislative staffs in half. As one Rep said in a self-congratulatory statement after voting to cut the legislature, "this is about us doing more with less." But are they really proposing more with less? Maybe fewer members, but the staff ratio makes it far more likely we will do the same or less – and with more staff.

Think about it this way – if we leave the staff size the same, you will now have an average of 15 staffers per member. And the likelihood is, over time, staffs will actually grow; much like the move from part time to full time, the legislature will claim the ostensible increased work load as a justification to increase the staffs of the remaining members. After all, we are asking for better government from fewer elected officials – they can’t be expected to do that absent bloated staffs.

The fact is if cost cutting is your goal, this misses the mark. But in fairness, cost containment isn’t the only claimed benefit of the measure. Cutting the legislature has also been touted as a way to reform Pennsylvania’s well-documented bipartisan culture of corruption, and proponents argue that fewer members will make the legislature more efficient and reduce shenanigans.

There is only one problem with that: a smaller legislature means more distilled power in the hands of fewer members. It will make each vote more valuable to the special interests, lobbyists and outright crooks that prowl around the halls of power. Rather than being more responsive, reducing the size of the legislature will reduce the number of discordant voices in what is INTENDED to be a deliberate body, not a rubber stamp for the Majority Party’s platform. The power at the top – the source of much of the corruption we have seen over the last 15 years – will actually grow. And it will only get worse over time.

You see, the increased power and the larger staffs for individual members will become a new insulator for the powerful. Incumbency – already the most powerful electoral tool we know – we become more valuable as members use bloated district staffs to provide constituent services, paid for by the people, to justify their continual re-election. The longer the member is in office, the more staff she will accumulate; the more staffers she has, the more services she can provide back home, which consequently will make it all the more difficult to vote her out. As her staff and power grows, so will the temptation for corruption in the name of expediency.

Maybe I am being too negative toward our elected officials, but if anything recent experience suggests I might be underselling it. In the most recent scandals, where did the fall from grace most frequently occur? The use of staffers to do political work on the people’s time. Maybe if we had fewer staffers they remaining staff would be too busy doing the people’s work to be corrupted.

The litany of staffers indicted and convicted with their bosses need not be repeated here for the point to be clear – as Pennsylvanians, we have watched this drama play out over the last 7 years and know full well the abuse of state money that occurs with these bloated staffs and unscrupulous politicians.

It is also almost impossible to credibly predict that the character and integrity of the legislature – as a whole – will suddenly go up simply because we have fewer members. On the contrary, that distilled power, the greater sway of each vote, makes it likely that the opposite will occur. That makes this most recent reform yet another hollow political gesture.

If we truly want to cut the costs of the legislature; if we truly want to reign in the abuses of public officials; and if we really want to reform the culture of corruption as a whole, the path is clear – cut the size of the legislative staffs, not the size of the legislature. Otherwise all we are doing is distilling power into the very hands that have been most guilty of abusing it over the last generation. I’m Scott Paterno, and that is the uncomfortable truth.