A Modest Proposal to End State Budget Impasse: Fire Half the Pa. Legislature

Why does the state legislature need two houses anyway?

harrisburg in half

I’ve got a solution to the ongoing budget crisis in Harrisburg — let’s tear down the General Assembly and start over again.

Let’s abolish the Pennsylvania House, govern the state with a unicameral legislature elected from our current Senate districts, and make our state government finally, belatedly effective.

It’s an extreme solution, sure, but the problem is extreme: We start 2016 without 2015’s budget work complete. And it’s not like this is a new problem: Tom Corbett’s run of on-time budgets aside — his only real accomplishment — late budgets occur so often that they appear to be a feature, not a bug, of Harrisburg governance. There is zero reason to believe this year’s budget process, due to start in just a few weeks, will go any better than last year’s.

The problem with that governance? Too many veto points. (Or, in less wonky terms: We have too many cooks spoiling the broth.)

Just a few weeks ago, Gov. Tom Wolf came to an agreement with leaders of the House and Senate on resolving the budget. The governor did what he promised. So did the Senate. The House blanched. End of deal.

But why did we need two legislative bodies to approve the budget in the first place?

I’m not quite sure, in fact, why Pennsylvania has a bicameral legislature: Until 1790, we were one of the few states that combined all its legislative functions into a single, unicameral body. (Nebraska is the only one that does it that way today.) Then we changed. Why? Check the timing: The U.S. Constitution had just been ratified, with a Senate and a House — the idea being to make Pennsylvania more like most other states and the new federal model.

The federal government had a reason — at the time — for the bicameral model: The U.S. House and Senate represented different groups: The Senate represented the states (for a number of years, the state legislators picked senators) while the House represented the citizens, and was elected by the voters.

But there’s no such separation between Pennsylvania’s House and Senate. The House is elected by Pennsylvania voters; the Senate is elected by Pennsylvania voters in larger, differently drawn districts. Why?

“Checks and balances,” I hear some of you say. But the state constitution already has checks and balances: The governor, legislature, and courts all keep each other from overreaching. The problem with Pennsylvania’s original unicameral legislature, in fact, is that there was little to check and balance it — instead of a governor with veto power, there was an “executive council” that had no tools to stop the legislature. More balance was needed.

The problem with the solution of 1790: A bicameral legislature ends up checking and balancing itself — like with the budget — in addition to the other branches. It’s one check too many.

One person who criticized bicameral legislatures: Philly’s own Benjamin Franklin, who told the following fable:

Has not the famous political Fable of the Snake, with two Heads and one Body, some useful Instruction contained in it? She was going to a Brook to drink, and in her Way was to pass thro’ a Hedge, a Twig of which opposed her direct Course; one Head chose to go on the right side of the Twig, the other on the left; so that time was spent in the Contest, and, before the Decision was completed, the poor Snake died with thirst.

Sound familiar? More plainly, he also said: “If one part of the legislature may control the operations of the other, may not the impulses of passion, the combinations of interest, the intrigues of faction, the haste of folly, or the spirit of encroachment in one of those bodies obstruct the good proposed by the other, and frustrate its advantages to the public?”

The answer, clearly, is yes.

The smart folks over at PennLive have offered up “modest proposals” for a better budget process, several of which amount to “grow up and do you your jobs” to politicians in both the executive and legislative branches. They aren’t bad ideas. But I suspect the problem is deeper, more structural — and will require restructuring to solve.

It will also be difficult. Cutting the legislature in half means cutting a lot of people off from the corridors of power. They won’t like that idea, and they’ll oppose it for that reason, almost certainly. That also means it’ll be hard to make the change: Any amendments to the state constitution — which would be required to change the governance structure — must be approved by both chambers twice, in consecutive legislative sessions. Only after that double approval would the proposal go to voters in a statewide referendum. There are ways of speeding up the process, but it takes a two-thirds approval of both chambers. In any case, it’s tough to see either the House or the Senate voting to put itself out of business.

But we have the largest full-time legislature in the nation. It’s not getting us anywhere. Let’s try something different. 

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.