Another Look at Downsizing the State Legislature

In our form of democracy, good ideas are discussed over and over across the years with little evidence of progress. Over the last two legislative sessions, measures to reduce the size of the General Assembly passed the House but died due to inaction in the State Senate.

Perhaps this will be the year that change does happen.

This past week the House State Government Committee approved a constitutional amendment to cut the 203 member chamber down to 151 members. The amendment will now go to the full House for a vote.

A reduction in the number of seats in the state legislature has been a reform that has seen some stirrings in recent years not only in Pennsylvania but in other states as well. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), proposals to reduce the number of legislative seats in at least one chamber have been set forth in Connecticut, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, and Nebraska in addition to Pennsylvania. Indeed, over 30 years ago, Illinois and Massachusetts approved significant reductions in their state legislatures. In 2002, Rhode Island reduced the number of seats in its state legislature by one-quarter, eight years after state voters first approved of the move. In Illinois, the House reduced its membership from 177 to 118 in 1980. After legislative reapportionments in 1991 and 2001, North Dakota reduced its number of legislative districts as well.

As I presented in THE REFORM OF STATE LEGISLATURES: The Changing Character of Representation in 1992, the large size of the legislature and the failure to amend the state Constitution to reduce it has brought forth some criticism, from organizations such as Common Cause to the League of Women Voters. Critics of the legislature cite a lack of decorum, frequent periods of confusion during session, the difficulty in organizing majorities to move legislation, and the necessity to reconcile various interests as the most common complaints.

A 1968 Constitutional Convention failed to reduce the size of the legislature, and subsequent ad hoc efforts from within the legislature have also resulted in failure. Even the reformers have not been able to reach a consensus on an ideal size. A majority of members of the Commission on Legislative Modernization concluded that Pennsylvania’s economic, social, religious, political, and ethnic diversity required a large legislature. Two years later, however, the Citizens’ Conference on State Legislatures, a private nonpartisan research organization, called attention to the size of Pennsylvania’s House, terming it one of the General Assembly’s “most pressing problems.” In fact, the Citizens’ Conference recommended that no lower chamber exceed 150 members.

A reduction in size of the General Assembly, or the House of Representatives, could have beneficial effects for the finances of the Commonwealth since the cost of operating the General Assembly has risen to approximately $300 million from a cost of $148.4 million in 1989-90 and $88.4 million in 1984-85. One must note, however, that a simple reduction in the number of legislators in the General Assembly will not automatically result in a proportionate reduction in either the direct or indirect costs of the General Assembly. While one would expect that a reduction in the number of members of the General Assembly would generate a reduction in the total costs of the legislature, such a reduction in membership would not automatically result in reductions in member salary/benefits, staff complement, or the size of legislative accounts. Notably, this has been Rhode Island’s experience after its downsizing of its state legislature.

Whether the Commonwealth’s costs would be diminished or not, however, is only one of the concerns that should be considered in this discussion. The foremost concern of all possible reform measures for the General Assembly is the issue of efficacy. Will the legislature be more or less effective than it has been before? I believe that a reduction in size would contribute to improving the effectiveness of the legislature by reducing the concentration of power that has been seen in the General Assembly for generations. A smaller legislature will probably make members more independent of Caucus leadership. Legislators will have to appeal to a larger group of constituents with a larger district and more constituents to serve than previously. Hence, a downsizing should also improve the legislature’s transparency.

When one considers the issues of legislative efficacy and transparency, however, one finds that rather than simply downsizing the General Assembly, it may be useful to couple this reform with several others that have been discussed over the years. Some of these reforms include the following:

1) Return to a citizen legislature through the adoption of limited legislative sessions. Parkinson’s Law will continue to run the life of the legislature, and all major business will continue to be conducted. A citizen legislature would also be fostered by a reduction in legislative pay and benefits to bring it in line with the average, private sector state-wide salary and benefit package.

2) Term limits, I have written extensively about this concept during the early 1990s. If term limits cannot be adopted, NOTA, None-of-the-Above, would be a worthy replacement.

3) Improve the availability of state budgetary information.

4) Initiative, referendum, and recall.

5) Question Period, the introduction of a Question Period for the Governor before the combined General Assembly, once a month for 90 minutes, would dramatically increase public knowledge of state issues and would strengthen accountability between the Executive and Legislative branches of Pennsylvania government.
Dr. Charles E. Greenawalt II, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow for The Susquehanna Valley Center

Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.