Why Not Eliminate the State House Altogether?

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Eric Boehm says there’s some life in the movement to shrink the state House from 203 members to 153 members:

A plan to cut 50 state House representatives, thereby adding about 20,000 constituents to each House district, advanced out of the House State Government Committee on Tuesday morning with a vote of 16-8.

The full chamber in the next few weeks will consider the proposed constitutional amendment to reduce the state House from 203 members to 153, but would leave the state Senate with its current 50 seats.

To be approved, a constitutional amendment must pass the General Assembly in two consecutive sessions, be signed by the governor and be ratified by voters in a statewide referendum.

Chris Briem has a much better idea:

It might be interesting for reform of the Pennylvania legislature to go just a bit further than just reducing the number by 50 or so. Would it be too much to try and impose a little more order on the whole system? Don’t answer that.

Our neighbors to the west in Ohio actually have a much more rational legislative structure. 99 members make up their house of representaives while there are 33 senators. The big difference is that the 3 to 1 ratio in Ohio is how the districts are spatially defined. Each senate district is made up of exactly the 3 general assembly districts which are coterminus in perfect tessellation.

Just saying that if the proposed number of general assembly districts for Pennsylvania was 150 and not 153 then it could work out the same with the 50 Pennsylvania senate districts. A tweak in the proposed law on how the general assembly districts are drawn could create a structure much like Ohio’s. Think how much clearer that would be? Who would want that

I like this specific proposal, but Chris’ broader point is even more important.

As in most states, the process for amending the state Constitution is extremely hard, and success is always unlikely.

If politicians want the kind of activist assistance they’re going to need for a long slog like this, they’re going to have to offer a more compelling political goal than some symbolic budget savings. At best this proposal will save a few tens of millions. To give you an idea, legislator pay only makes up about 10% of the budget.

Why are we about to go through the process of amending the Constitution to save an amount of money several orders of magnitude lower than what can be saved through the regular budget process?

The only reason this is worth doing is if it’s also going to make the legislature function better. That’s got to be the primary concern.

Chris’ proposal does that by tying the interests of a state Senator directly to the interests of three contiguous House districts. It aligns those legislators with specific economic regions and brings some order to the contest for state resources.

The real problem with having so many House seats is that legislators have to focus on too narrow an area to truly represent the broader interests of the metro regions that drive the state’s economy.

The Ohio way is one way to get at that problem, but I think a better way would be to just scrap the state House altogether.

That’s where the real savings is going to be. Why not just get rid of all 203 House members and their staff? Seriously, does anybody have a good reason not to do this?

Nebraska does it, and it’s not causing any obvious problems. A few other states have flirted with the idea. All local governments are unicameral. There’s not really a good reason to have a bicameral legislature unless you really like gridlock.

Personally, I don’t buy the gridlock-as-checks-and-balances argument at all. When there’s gridlock between chambers, it’s easier for politicians to shift the blame around, and harder for voters to pin down where parties and individual politicians stand on the issues.

Also, having a state House member and a state Senator to pay attention to just divides voters’ attention. If you’ve only got one dude to watch in the state legislature, it’s easier for a non-political junkie to keep up with what that rep is doing. And the reps themselves have fewer excuses for bad economic results, since there’d be fewer constraints on their ability to respond to problems.

Party competition and Governors’ veto power is enough of a check on the political process. Gridlock between legislative chambers only makes the sausage-making slower and less accountable.

This entry was posted in Miscellany.

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