At 1 p.m. today, the state House will reconvene, and one of the items on its agenda is considering a bill to eliminate 20 percent of its members.
House Bill 1234 is the latest attempt by Rep. Sam Smith, R-Armstrong, Indiana and Jefferson counties, to reduce the size of the legislature. After bills to do the same thing have stalled in previous years, Smith reintroduced the idea this year in two separate bills: H.B. 1234 would reduce the House from 203 to 152 members, and its companion, House Bill 1716, would reduce the Senate to 38 members.
It's almost a knee-jerk reaction to hate on politicians, so when I saw the email Friday that this topic was coming up for a second committee vote, I gave a silent cheer.
Then I stopped and thought about it.
Of course reducing the size of your staff — and therefore, at least in the short term, your salary and benefits costs — always sounds like a great idea. And if a consultant came in and told me that my business was the second-largest of 50 similar businesses in the U.S. and cost the second-highest amount to run, too (these are both true about Pennsylvania's legislature, by the way), I'd be tempted to get the axman on the line.
But I would have to stop myself and think about the long-term effects first.
So I did some research, seeking out the options and views of those who know more about this topic than I. I found this op-ed by lancasteronline.com, calling for the reduction. I found this piece from 2011 by the PA Independent about one of Smith's previous attempts to shrink the legislature.
I found this story by the (Allentown) Morning Call, where political analyst G. Terry Madonna points out that the General Assembly meets less often than Congress but is still considered full time. I found this fascinating article by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that says an analysis shows that Smith's proposal could save the state $8 million per year, which was the type of information I was looking for.
And then I came across what I found most helpful: This is the testimony that Nathan Benefield, director of policy research for the Commonwealth Foundation, gave before the state Senate Government Committee in 2010 on this topic.
Benefield hit on what I suspected but couldn't put into words myself: That reducing the legislature size alone isn't going to have the impact Smith is looking for. Instead, it's a sound idea that needs to be implemented with a set of other reforms.
Here's an excerpt from Benefield's testimony:
"Indeed, if the legislative budget was reduced by 40% the savings would amount to approximately $40 per family of four in Pennsylvania. This is not totally insignificant, but far greater savings can be achieved through other, more substantive cost-cutting policy changes and reforms.
"Additionally, reducing the number of legislators would not automatically result in an equal reduction in either direct or indirect costs. It will not necessarily result in reductions (and may result in increase) in staff size, salary & benefits, or legislative accounts. ...
"Fewer legislators could result in a reduction of the number of staff (and translate into cost savings). However, increasing legislators' constituents would increase their responsibilities and workload, and could lead to more staff per legislator. Many staff are assigned to caucuses, committees, or other support areas and may not be affected by a change in the number of lawmakers."
And here, I think, Benefield gives an excellent summation of how intricate and interconnected this topic needs to be:
Some of the measures we believe are critical to restoring the integrity and functionality of the Pennsylvania General Assembly include:
• Limited Sessions: Pennsylvania's General Assembly is one of four full-time state legislatures. Returning it to a part-time body (with a limited number of session days) would help return it to a citizen-led legislature.
• Compensation and Benefits: The virtue of 'public service' should be restored through a reassessment of the compensation and benefits provided to public servants. At the very least, public servants' remuneration should not exceed the compensation and benefits commonly provided for comparable work in the private sector.
• Term Limits: Pennsylvania currently limits the number of terms a governor can serve. Term limits should also be placed on the General Assembly. Term-limiting committee chairmanships would be a meaningful first step.
• Spending Transparency: Creating an online, itemized database of state spending — as 30 other states have done — would allow lawmakers and citizens to identify wasteful spending.
• Initiative and Referendum: Twenty-four states have initiative and referendum, whereby citizens can enact laws and constitutional amendments, as well as reject laws and amendments passed by the legislature. This would ensure Pennsylvanians are sovereign and serve as an important check on the power of state government.
So I've been left in favor of reducing the legislature as long as it involves other meaningful reforms.
What do you think? Do you agree with the idea at all and, if so, do you think shrinking the General Assembly alone would be enough change?
You can watch a livestream of the House debate starting at 1 p.m. today here.