Tantalizingly Close, Yet Still As Far Away As Ever

That phrase pretty much sums up the recent legislative history of a proposed constitutional amendment to reduce the size of the General Assembly, the second largest among states, as the critics constantly remind us.  For decades, proposals to cut the number of state legislators have been introduced with fanfare.  Then they fizzle.  Things changed during the last legislative session, when a proposed amendment to pare the House of Representatives gained first round legislative approval.  Positive action legitimately fueled optimism on the part of advocates and citizens.

But as Pennsylvanians have learned to their frustration, reform is rarely a straight-line progression.  Anticipated second round approval this session hit a big speed bump.  The bill was amended to reduce the size of both House and Senate.  For some advocates, the revised plan was bigger and better balanced.  This was a setback for reform, however, because there is no play room in the word identical.  An altered amendment no longer counts as second round approval.  This tangle was not unknotted before the deadline for action on proposed constitutional amendments.  Thus, two years has been put back on the clock for submitting a question to voters.  Citizens cannot be blamed for thinking this looks a lot like Lucy pulling the football away before Charlie Brown gets a chance to kick it.  Or resembling reform tied to a bungee cord.

Opinion polls indicate this proposition would be a lead-pipe cinch for passage.  The insider view among public officials, commentators, and interest groups is obviously less lopsided.  If a question should one day make the ballot, the constitutionally ordained ninety days of advertising will explain the mechanical effect of any change, but will not contain any speculation on how things might play out.  So what differences in operation might become apparent?

First, a disclaimer – this discussion is not another anti-legislator rant.  Having worked in the state Senate for 35 years, I came away with a deep appreciation and respect for the preponderant virtues of the institution and the men and women who serve in it.  Of course, neither the process nor the players approach perfection.  With public expectations persistently unsatisfied, many taxpayers put cutting the size of the General Assembly high on their reform agenda.

Every state save New Hampshire provides an example of how smaller numerical representation functions.  Comparisons can provide guidance, but do not guarantee outcomes.  How a particular legislature operates in terms of efficiency and effectiveness reflects the political culture of the state and the issues and challenges of the moment.  The Declaration of Independence declares that all men are created equal, but the same is not true for legislative bodies.

One assertion is indisputable.  There is no stampede of states moving to enlarge their legislative bodies to emulate Pennsylvania’s structure.

Naturally, there is no magic overall number, nor is there a better-than-the-rest ratio of Senators to House members.  The Senate and the House will always have a different dynamic due to a four-year term versus a two-year term.  A reset can be fluid in determining acceptable reductions in complement.

A smaller General Assembly will not automatically bridge the growing chasms of partisan, philosophical, and regional divides that plague the institution.  Commentators overlook how this reflects citizen mood, as opposed to driving it.

Given the fishbowl nature of modern legislative service, strengths will be magnified and weaknesses more apparent in a smaller body.  Fewer people serving means greater focus on individuals and enhanced accountability.  Unfortunately, there is not a direct correlation between lesser numbers and better ethics.  Judges and executive officers have been indicted and convicted far too frequently over the years, and they come from much smaller bodies, sometimes a class of one, in the case of treasurers and auditors general.

As to the number of legislators and the critical mass necessary for moving solutions on complicated and highly contested issues, getting past the chokepoints in the process will remain key.  Failure to act is mostly about the preferences of those whose hands are on the throttle of power, rather than the number of bodies present for duty.

A large General Assembly was a populist construct conceived in the 1870s, meant to make it harder for corporate interests to buy the support of a majority of legislators.  While concerns about special interest influence have not abated over time, it is a far different world today.  The multiplicity of groups engaging in advocacy ensures that no cause is unopposed.  Major issues are rarely just two-sided disputes anymore.  While the evolution of lobbying pressure will not be reversed, it is possible that having fewer members to convince might in turn reduce the armies of persuaders thrown at major issues sardonically referred to as “lobbyist full-employment acts.”

Technology has transformed the role of communications in public service.  Some House members contend smaller numbers will reduce constituent interaction.  The quick counterpoint is state Senators sustain satisfactory contact and service levels in districts four times as large.  Someone accused of being inaccessible these days is oftentimes merely unwilling to conduct a public conversation in the place and manner demanded by their opponents.

As state spending for programs and services mushrooms, and citizen antipathy toward taxes increases, there is growing emphasis on controlling costs.  A smaller legislature should provide some reasonable savings, although well short of a windfall.  Legislator lectures about living within a constrained budget become more believable if there is tangible leadership by example.

The argument that a smaller legislature unwisely reduces the number of participants is a red herring.  The discouraging factors of seeking office are already in play in full force.  If it is shown that the ability to get something worthwhile accomplished is increased, that could prove a draw for potential candidates.  Understandably, there is not much incentive to spend the money and hazard the destructive brand of politics currently practiced in campaigns to merely become a spare player in the gridlock games.

The case for reduction is built on possibilities – money saved and production increased, through a process less clogged.  These possibilities become probabilities through public action.  Voters making good choices at election time.  Citizens following through with involvement and pressure as agendas are set and decisions are weighed and made.  Not giving in to the cynical view that good people and good intentions do not stand a chance in cutthroat politics.  Without those things, the only certain change is in the roster listings and the math of decisionmaking.  While we tend to make judgments on the collective efforts of legislative bodies, the truth is that the quality of representation is primarily an individual measurement.  Which accounts for the typical dichotomy whereby voters like their representative and dislike the greater assemblage.

The prevalent suspicion we are near the bottom in prestige and production on the part of the legislature has raised public hackles but not yet proved sufficient catalyst for change.  Thus, a fair calculus of upsides and downsides is important.  For those who are fond of upbeat endings, here is the takeaway: A smaller General Assembly offers prospective value in substance and in symbolism, and may be a door opener for further process reforms.

David A. Atkinson is an Associate with the Susquehanna Valley Center’s Edward H. Arnold Institute of Policy Studies.

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

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy.