G. Terry Madonna & Michael L.Young
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.
Can we afford to do less in the present climate of voter cynicism, anger and alienation?
Politically Uncorrected™ is published twice monthly, and previous columns can be viewed at http://politics.fandm.edu. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any institution or organization with which they are affiliated. This article may be used in whole or part only with appropriate attribution. Copyright © 2013 Terry Madonna and Michael Young.