Politically Uncorrected | Right problem, wrong solution

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 General Assembly. 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 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 Sen. 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 Sen. Elder Vogel, while likewise cutting the House to 121, would downsize 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 sessions since the late 1960s 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 about $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 1 percent of the state’s current $28 billion budget.

Worse, perhaps, is that reducing the House could actually increase the public’s alienation from government. Each House member represents about 60,000 people, creating districts small enough 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 would 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 minds off the real reforms that should be enacted.

Fortunately there are several that would really help. Consider just these three.

Staff reforms

Currently, the General Assembly employs about 3,000 people.

Some reformers estimate the legislature employs at least twice as many workers as necessary to perform the legitimate work of the legislature. Much worse than the staffing bloat, however, is the way personnel are organized — by partisan caucus leading to the kind of corruption uncovered in the notorious “Bonusgate” public corruption convictions.

The obvious downside can be avoided simply by organizing most legislative staffers into a nonpartisan, nonpolitical central operation such as the Congressional Budget Office or the Library of Congress.

Many legislative staffers are professionals, but too many are political. Why not apply civil service to many of them similar to the employees in the executive branch?

Ethics reform

Legislative ethics rules and procedures are completely ineffective in sanctioning unethical behavior. Legislators have no fear of being disciplined for illegal or unethical behavior.

In recent decades at least 30 legislators have been prosecuted successfully for various legal and ethical lapses. Yet not one received so much as a reprimand, much less a severe penalty.

Related is the lack of a gift ban. Currently, legislators may accept gifts of any value as long as the gift is reported. Even Congress, no paragon of ethical behavior, limits gifts. Pennsylvania does not — giving some truth to the hoary maxim that Pennsylvanians enter politics not to do good but to do well.

Campaign finance laws

Pennsylvania effectively has no campaign finance restrictions, except to ban direct union and corporate contributions.

An individual or a political action committee may contribute any amount of money to any state or local candidate for any office. Moreover, the recipient of an unlimited contribution can basically use it for virtually any purpose, subject to a legal definition so broad — “to influence an election” — as to permit expenditures for almost any purpose.

Though contributions must be reported, the campaign finance laws would be laughable, if they did not matter so much. Arguably, they alone are responsible for more state corruption than any other factor.

None of these reforms is the slick, glitzy “feel good” proposal likely to dominate news coverage or grab headlines. What they do represent, however, are workable reforms that would restore a measure of public trust and respect for state government.

Can we afford to do less in the present climate of voter cynicism, anger and alienation?