By: Daylin Leach
The concept of “political reform” received a good deal of attention in the recent campaign. Certain reforms are clearly necessary and long-overdue. Campaign finance reform and legislative redistricting reform are two examples. However, some things being touted as reforms could actually have a pernicious effect. Two examples are the momentarily popular but actually terrible proposals to shrink the size of the legislature and impose term limits.
The claimed benefit to shrinking the legislature is that we would have to pay fewer legislators. However, even if we eliminated a third of the legislature, we each would save a mere 65 cents per year (it would save about $8 million in salary and there are about 12 million Pennsylvanians). What each of us would lose is worth far more than 65 cents.
Each legislator has extensive responsibilities in their districts. We help thousands of constituents a year with state issues; we arrange town meetings, informational hearings, veteran’s trips, etc. We go to dozens of municipal meetings, senior centers and civic associations as well as mediate neighborhood disputes. Most of us work in excess of 60 hours per week and still have difficulty keeping up with all of our district obligations. I have 4 municipalities in my district. If the size of our districts grew by 30 or 40 percent, I would obviously have much less time to spend in each of my townships and boroughs. The inescapable fact is that smaller districts equal better service and more responsiveness, and that is easily worth the 65 cents per year on average it costs you.
More troubling is the damage that shrinking the legislature would do to our political system. First, it would significantly increase the costs of campaigns. This would mean more begging for money from special interests and it would make it more difficult for people of average means to even consider running. Reducing the legislature would also work against the need for redistricting reform which will be difficult enough to pass without a concurrent massive gerrymandering scrum which will inevitably result from throwing dozens of incumbents into the same districts to run against each other. Plus, we know that the party in power will draw the district lines to ensure that they gain seats in the new order and keep them for years to come. The result is likely to be a far less competitive state politically.
Further, certain types of voters will effectively be disenfranchised. That’s because some groups tend to be geographically concentrated (Democrats, African Americans, urban-dwellers, etc.) Others tend to be widely dispersed (Republicans, rural-dwellers, farmers, etc.). With bigger districts, it is more likely that certain groups of voters will be marginalized within their districts, either innocently or intentionally through gerrymandering. Whichever the case, individual citizens will have a harder time being heard.
Shrinking the legislature will mean poorer service, less contact with your legislator, more expensive campaigns, greater redistricting mischief and more voter disenfranchisement, all to save 65 cents. This just doesn’t seem like a good deal to me.
As for term limits, it’s hard to imagine a more anti-democratic proposal than allowing politicians in Harrisburg to tell you who you can and cannot elect to represent you. Why would we give people who know nothing about our part of the state the power to decide what local person we choose to be our voice?
The term “professional politician” has become a pejorative. However, committed people who spend years developing expertise are assets not liabilities. Colleagues of mine have passed major legislation that they’ve been working on for 10-15 years. Limiting legislators to 6 or 8 years in office would deprive our state of valuable institutional knowledge. When we hire doctors or lawyers we invariably want experience because we recognize its value. Why would we want exclusively inexperienced people running our government? A government without experienced legislators who know what they are doing is a government run by unelected lobbyists and outside experts who will quickly move to provide the knowledge and understanding the law-makers lack.
Of course our government needs turn-over and new blood. I believe if we enact campaign finance reform and take the politics out of redistricting we will have significant turnover. But the passion and idealism of new blood must be leavened with the stoic wisdom of accumulated experience. A well-functioning legislature needs both a steady supply of new members and a respected collection of people who’ve learned some things over time. The truth is that we already have term limits. They are called elections, and if we ensure that they are competitive, fair and open, they are the only term limits we will ever need.
Reform is a wonderful thing. Our nation is built upon the idea of constant reformation. But we must remember, all that glitters is not gold, and not everything called “reform” would actually make our political system better.