By: Daylin Leach
May 28, 2010
Recently, the Bonusgate Grand Jury issued a report which has received a great deal of media attention. This report had nothing to do with the criminal charges against specific individuals they investigated. This report was an extremely rare supplemental grand pronouncement on the state of our government, along with numerous recommendations for restructuring the entire legislature. Because I believe that the methodology, the conclusions and the recommendations of the report are, in many respects, dead wrong, I felt compelled to comment.
First, let me concede that bashing the legislature is easy. Like any profession, we have our bad apples and it is lazy but effortless to generalize their conduct to everyone. Further, because virtually every citizen is unhappy with some of our policy decisions, it’s not difficult for a candidate for Governor or other office to glean votes by pandering to those who think that only people who are corrupt or stupid could make the decisions they disagree with.
That said, it is important that the following be said: The overwhelming majority of Pennsylvania’s legislators, on both sides of the aisle, are extremely smart, hard-working, completely honest people who are doing their level best to make Pennsylvania a better place. The notion that legislators are corrupt in any way is (with a few rare exceptions) plain false. And thus any “reforms” based on this notion are ill-grounded.
The Grand Jury spent months investigating the criminal conduct of a few legislators. It is understandable that with this as their focus, they became cynical. They didn’t spend a great deal of time talking to the 99 percent of lawmakers not accused of a crime about what they do. Why would they? But because the Grand Jury’s methodology was incomplete given their self-appointed roll as the re-inventors of state government, their factual findings were often inaccurate. And given that, the recommendations based upon those findings were, for the most part, ill-conceived.
An example of sloppy factual assertion appears on Page 6 of the report, which says that the “overwhelming majority” of legislators care more about serving themselves than serving their constituents. There is no support offered for such a mind-reading claim and after eight years as a legislator, I know it simply isn’t true. They also say that being a PA legislator did not qualify as full-time work. Wrong again. Most legislators spend 70-80 hours per week, every week at their jobs and still struggle to keep up.
Inaccurate information leads to poor recommendations. Sure, some of the technical suggestions, such as consolidating House printing offices might have merit, but their broad policy suggestions would do great harm to our state if implemented.
For example, a part-time legislature is a terrible idea. We make decisions affecting tens of billions of dollars in complicated policy areas such as transportation, health care, criminal justice and economic development. In some matters, such as abortion, the death penalty, and access to medical care our decisions literally have life and death consequences. Do you really want people making these decisions who just dropped by on their way to taking a deposition or after their shift at Macy’s? Shouldn’t we demand our legislators actually take the time to read about issues, go to hearings, meet with advocates, tour facilities and do all of things that require a full-time commitment?
In some cases the Grand Jury’s recommendations don’t even make sense on their own terms. They bemoan the fact that House members have to run for re-election every two years and suggest expanding their terms to 4 years. But then, “to limit the damage they can do” they suggest allowing a recall of legislators. Which means that House members will be running not every 2 years, but every day as those who didn’t vote for the member in the first place constantly put recall questions on the ballot.
Similarly, the Grand Jury recommends that legislators forfeit pay if the budget is not passed on time. This is perhaps the most nonsensical and plain awful idea of all. The Grand Jury says it wants lawmakers to think about their constituents and not themselves, and then suggests a scheme that will force the exact opposite. If there is a budget that is bad for my constituents, I should feel free to vote “NO” on that budget without worrying that I won’t be able to provide for my family. We would literally be giving legislators money if they vote Yes on a bill and not giving them money if they vote No. Usually this is called bribery, which doesn’t sound like the best reform idea.
Space precludes a comprehensive reply to the Grand Jury report. But it is worth repeating that while legislature-bashing may be good fun, it ceases to be harmless when it results in pernicious policies. It may not be popular to stand up for the good people doing important work in Harrisburg. But if more of us don’t do it, our institution and the people of our Commonwealth will suffer.
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