Pennsylvania treats its legislators very well, all 253 of them. With 203 legislators in the House and 50 in the Senate, Pennsylvania has the second-largest legislature in the country (surpassed only by New Hampshire), and the largest full-time one (Meyer, “Bill”). With a base pay of $86,478.50 (as of 2017), legislators also receive the second highest salary in the country (surpassed only by California) (Murphy). Some Pennsylvania legislators, in an effort to shrink government and the budget, are seeking to pass a Constitutional amendment to shrink their own numbers. While well-intentioned, the bill is ultimately ineffective and potentially harmful.
The legislation, H.B. 153, in its original form would reduce the House to 151 members. An amendment tacked on earlier in the year would also reduce the Senate to 38 members, although that amendment was stripped from the bill by the Senate after passing the House (Lemery). In order to pass a Constitutional amendment, a bill must pass both chambers twice in two consecutive years with identical language. H.B. 153 passed in 2017 and is now awaiting passage this year. If it does, it will be sent to the voters on the 2018 ballot. If a majority of voters vote yes, the amendment will be added to the state constitution.
The proponents of the bill cite multiple advantages it offers. From a budgetary standpoint, they portray it as in line with other bills that reduce government expenditures. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jerry Knowles (R-124), estimates savings at $15 million annually, which he acknowledges is small compared to PA’s $32 billion budget but notes that it is “a lot of money where I come from” (Meyer, “What”). In an intangible sense, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-12), frames the bill as part of an effort to “drain the swamp” in Harrisburg (Lemery). Finally, the cosponsors of the bill emphasize their frustration with the disorder seemingly intrinsic to the House floor. Debate is disorganized and legislators are, in the words of Rep. Rick Saccone (R-39), “off doing other things” (Lemery). Legislators hope that by reducing the size of the body, debate will become more organized and thoughtful.
Opponents of the bill cite concerns with the adverse effects of the legislation. Mary Jo Daley (D-148) notes that, while reducing the size of the legislature, the bill does nothing to address gerrymandering in state districts (Meyer, “What”). While Pennsylvania’s federal congressional map was redrawn by the PA Supreme Court in 2018, the state legislative districts remain as they were. Daley argues that reducing the size of the legislature doesn’t strike at the key issue it is currently facing: it’s inability to represent the views of the majority of Pennsylvanians.
Another concern, which comes partly from representatives in rural areas of the state, is that the legislation would leave legislators with enormous districts, making it difficult for elected officials to listen to and aid their constituents at a personal level. Rep. Cris Dush (R-66) fears his district could grow from 900 to 1200 square miles (Meyer, “What”). Along the same lines, large districts give incumbents an advantage, as challengers without name recognition have to traverse large swaths of land to be competitive.
Besides the concerns opponents to H.B. 153 have, the bill may not even be the solution its cosponsors are hoping for. Other states faced with similar problems as Pennsylvania have attempted to remedy them by shrinking the legislature. For example, in the early 1980s, Illinois cut its legislature from 177 members to 118. A decade later, however, analysts concluded the state hadn’t saved any money (Meyer, “What”). While fewer legislators were on the payroll, those that remained had hired more staff to cover their larger districts, resulting in even expenditures. Further, constituents found themselves talking with staffers instead of politicians with their concerns, the very outcome Rep. Dush fears. Additionally, as Brenda Erickson, an analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures notes, “functionality doesn’t necessarily equate to size . . . There’s too many other factors” (Meyer, “What”). Thus, H.B. 153 could potentially reduce constituents’ access to their representatives and simultaneously fail to address any of the problems that gave rise to it. Moreover, as it would be written into the state constitution, the bill would be very difficult to amend.
Notably, in the debate over H.B. 153, legislators appear to be arguing about different issues. Proponents of the bill seek to reign in government spending and bring order to a chaotic House. Opponents are concerned about responsiveness to constituent concerns and fair representation. These stances do not negate each other, suggesting that everyone’s concerns could potentially be met, albeit perhaps not in H.B. 153.
Instead, legislators have a variety of options to address all concerns. First, to address gerrymandering, they could pursue a clean version of S.B. 22 (see here for more information). The budget is an entirely different beast, and unfortunately requires more focus and effort than the questionable savings in H.B. 153. In terms of changing the culture of the House, as Erickson notes, tradition and intent matter more than size (Meyer, “What”). Shrinking the House does nothing to change the mindsets of the people who comprise it. More basically, however, there is no reason that 203 adults cannot quiet down and listen to each other if they exercise only the smallest restraint. The 600+ students who attend Lewisburg High School can do it. Perhaps the chaos of the House is better addressed by a commitment to respect the right of legislators to be heard on the floor than by legislation that decreases the number of people who could potentially disrespect each other.
Unfortunately, H.B. 153 is unlikely to solve any problems the PA legislature faces. Fortunately, the problems that it attempts to fix can be addressed. Even more fortunately, few lawmakers appear to oppose the intentions of the legislation. No one is arguing the legislature works like a finely oiled machine. Now, the legislators just need to find the right brand of grease.
Daley, Mary Jo. “Shrinking the Leigslature without stopping gerrymandering solves nothing.” PennLive, 5 Feb. 2018, https://www.pennlive.com/opinion/2018/02/shrinking_the_legislature_with.html.
Lemery, Dave. “Pennsylvania legislators’ call for House to vote on bill shrinking Legislature fails to bear fruit.” PA Watchdog, 26 June 2018, https://www.watchdog.org/pennsylvania/pennsylvania-legislators-call-for-house-to-vote-on-bill-shrinking/article_6d6956fc-795e-11e8-a730-bfd80ba496e9.html.
Meyer, Katie. “Bill to shrink Pa. legislature moves forward; ultimate success uncertain.” WHYY, 14 Mar. 2018, https://whyy.org/articles/bill-shrink-pa-legislature-moves-forward-ultimate-success-uncertain/.
—. “What would downsizing Pennsylvania’s legislature actually do?” WITF, 30 Mar. 2018, http://www.witf.org/state-house-sound-bites/2018/03/what-would-downsizing-pennsylvanias-legislature-actually-do.php.
Murphy, Jan. “It pays more to be a Pa. state legislator in 2017.” PennLive, 23 Nov. 2016, https://www.pennlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2016/11/it_pays_more_to_be_a_pa_state.html.