Should Pennsylvania's voters be cheered or frustrated that efforts to reduce the size of the state legislature have slowed? Anyone who believes a smaller legislature will reduce costs or become suddenly more responsive and efficient is likely to be among the frustrated; we do not believe a smaller legislature will produce any of those benefits.
A smaller legislature is expected to save $10 million to $15 million per year, a savings of about $1.17 per state taxpayer. These savings are a barely noticeable share of Pennsylvania's annual $66 billion operating budget. These purported savings also assume that legislators will add no additional staff even though each will have a larger legislative workload, represent more constituents, and represent larger geographic areas. How likely is that?
But, even without much cost savings, isn't it true that Pennsylvania already has one of the largest state legislatures? In absolute terms, the state has the second-largest legislative body, but Pa.'s lawmakers represent more citizens than do lawmakers in many other states on a per-constituent basis. Based on 2010 census data, each member of the General Assembly represents about 63,000 constituents compared with the 50-state average of 60,000. This makes the state 18th in terms of constituents per lawmaker.
How big should the legislature be? Most scholars have concluded there is no magic number, and even the state's founding fathers specified a desire that the House have no set maximum. Over four frames of government and five constitutions, Pennsylvania's legislative bodies have varied in size.
But what has undoubtedly happened over time is that legislators have increasingly represented more people. In 1790, a state legislator represented about 4,300 citizens. In 1880, he represented about 17,600. Today, each represents about 63,000. A move to 151 legislative districts would mean that each represents about 85,000 citizens.
But won't it be possible to pass legislation more efficiently if we have a smaller legislature? The argument for this seems to be that lawmakers will become more ideologically moderate because they need to appeal to a larger number of constituents. This presumably will make it easier to pass important legislation. In theory this holds appeal, but in practice we don't see the state's smaller Senate being held up as a more representative or efficient legislative body than the larger General Assembly.
Now, it is probably true that a smaller legislature will operate more efficiently, but taking this argument to its logical conclusion suggests having the smallest legislature possible. A legislature of one would produce extremely efficient outcomes.
But legislative bodies are not supposed to be efficient. These bodies are intended to offer an opportunity for varied and competing interests to work through their issues and produce outcomes that consider the interests of a wide range of constituencies. We have a single governor because we want more efficient execution and implementation of the law, but we have a larger legislature because we want the voices of Pennsylvania's citizens to be heard when laws are being written.
It seems more likely that a smaller legislature will produce poorer representation. In a smaller legislature, each lawmaker will have to represent a greater number of people and will be less likely to have face-to-face contact with constituents. And as districts grow larger, more communities will share a single representative, making it less likely that each individual community's interest will be served.
The reality is that interests are narrowed in smaller legislative bodies, and fewer and fewer of them get a seat at the legislative table. Pennsylvania's rich tapestry of communities, voices, and interests is likely to be much shallower and less representative.
Perhaps more important is the fact that as the number of legislative seats decreases, the cost of running for office rises. Only candidates with enough money to run can compete for seats. This will reduce representation among groups that do not traditionally hold office. It will also further drive the move from a citizen legislature to a legislature full of professional politicians.
Citizens believe the state legislature does a pretty bad job of representing their interests. Unfortunately, a simple, reflexive desire to shrink the size of the legislature is going to make us even less satisfied. If the legislature is to be a microcosm of the state's varied interests, traditions, communities, and political cultures, it seems that expanding the legislature, rather than reducing it, is going to make much more sense.