Shrinking the Legislature: Boon for PA Progressives?

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It’s not a new narrative. Pennsylvania’s State Legislature is big, expensive, and inefficient. With 203 Representatives and 50 Senators, Pennsylvania’s 253-member legislature is among the largest in the nation considering the population it serves (beat out only by New Hampshire). Numerous attempts have been made over the years to shrink the legislature, with countless public officials endorsing such measures over the years, without any real intention of following through on them.

Maybe it’s the anemic job growth, frustration over inaction on property-tax relief, or a general lack of trust in the state legislatures ability to govern effectively, but this most recent push to slash the number of legislators in both houses has received more support, and seems more likely to garner actual results than any prior attempt.

With each chamber weighing how much of their own body they’d like to let go of, it seems the likely final product would see the legislature reduced from 253, to 198 members. That’s a reduction of 55 overall seats (5 from the Senate, 50 from the House). While it is entirely conceivable that this breakthrough in bipartisan agreement that something needs to be done about the bloated legislature fades away as nothing more than election year banter, Pennsylvanians should be prepared to see this question presented to voters in a constitutional amendment referendum as early as 2015 (before the 2020 reapportionment).

The thought of a leaner legislature should excite progressives across the state. Never mind the obvious cost savings…fewer districts would increase democratic competitiveness for seats long forsaken to the “right.” Democrats have a statewide voter registration advantage of roughly 1,062,864 over Republicans. Of course, this statewide advantage means nothing cracked apart into heavily gerrymandered districts expertly drawn to favor republicans. If you were wondering how a state that went to the Democratic Nominee for President in every election since 1992 could have had a republican controlled general assembly for 14 out of 21 of those years…that is how.

Pennsylvania is not as “red” as our statehouse and congressional delegations would imply. Democrats and progressives have been fighting an uphill battle over districting for decades. An increase in district population size would necessarily be accompanied by a strengthened democratic presence in many districts. With slim republican majorities in both houses as it is, that bump could be a crucial factor in achieving democratic control in one or both chambers.

This entry was posted in State Politics.

9 Responses to Shrinking the Legislature: Boon for PA Progressives?

  1. Albert Brooks says:

    Districts themselves are bad for democratic principles since it allows for gerrymandering. There are already workable divisions in the state. They are called counties. 2 Reps and 1 Senator per county. Local people being held accountable by local people and not some half-assed made up district boundary.

    • James says:

      Yea, let’s give the 1.5 million residents of Philly the same representation as the less than 5K residents of Cameron county! That’s a even greater disparity than exists in the U.S. Senate, and you’re extending it to both houses. And you’re saying it promotes “democratic principles”. Goodness gracious!

  2. stcif01 says:

    What is being talked about when we say gerrymandering? When districting you are just picking between some combination of these values [Equal Population, Matching Natural and Political Boundaries, Compactness and Contiguity, Party Fairness (an unbiased seats-to-votes curve between the parties), Ethnic Fairness (substantial numbers of minority ethnic group members elected), Party Competition (close elections and party alternation in a substantial number of districts)]

    That being the case, nesting, to rely on existing political boundaries, as you suggest we do, seems as arbitrary as any of the other choices.

    The benefit of non-nesting districts are incentives for electeds to make larger geographic coalitions.

    • Albert Brooks says:

      Since it is a defined and most importantly, a stable boundary, it can’t be arbitrary to the changing whims of whomever is in power. I also am not talking about the US Congress but a state legislature which may or may not require the values you listed. nor should they IMO. Having equal power distributed across the state would require the elected to make geographical coalitions or nothing would get done. And the electeds would not be able to sit back and feel somewhat safe in their made up districts but would have to appeal to a variety of voters. Plus it allows for much easier entry by third party or Independents then the current system does.

    • Michael Noda says:

      Could I ask you what your position is on Proportional Representation? No state has tried it since Baker v. Carr, but it would dispense with a lot of debate over the relative fairness of maps, even if only applied to one house of a bicameral legislature.

  3. James says:

    It’s not clear to me at all why a small legislature would “increase democratic competitiveness for seats long forsaken to the right.” We have only 18 congressional seats in the state, yet Republicans have a 13-5 advantage with only 3 of those seats being potentially competitive (PA 6, 7, and 8). And all of those are tough lifts for Democrats due to their Republican leanings. I don’t see why size of the district matters compared to how the districts are arranged. When you have a basically evenly divided state like PA, it’s pretty easy to make the districts however you want, regardless of what size they are. In fact, my previous impression has always been that smaller districts could help underfunded progressives by making easier to win campaigns through grassroots methods.

    Just to be clear, I’m not opposed to shrinking the legislature. I just don’t see why it would be beneficial to progressives.

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  5. Jeanne Clark says:

    I have never agreed that less democracy is a solution for poor democracy. Take a look at the numbers — a smaller legislation will work against Democrats, especially urban voters.