State and Local Government
State and Local Government
The Pennsylvania General Assembly
Before and After the 1968 Legislative
Modernization Commission: A Brief History
February 28, 2011
The Pennsylvania General Assembly is
America’s largest full-time legislature
“…the legislature’s job consists of three principal
functions: representing, lawmaking, and balancing the
power of the executive.” Alan Rosenthal
How do our legislature’s size and professionalism affect
its capacity to represent citizens, make laws, and
balance the other branches?
For insight, we turn to history.
March 6, 1968
Plagued with chronic deficits, the General Assembly is
locked in partisan combat. Seven of the previous ten
budgets have been late by an average of 94 days.
It is an era much like ours, not just of fiscal turmoil but of
calls for government reform. A new PA Constitution is
awaiting the verdict of the voters in a few short weeks.
House Majority Leader Lee Donaldson, R-Allegheny,
calls up HR 207, creating a bipartisan, bicameral
Commission on Legislative Modernization.
The resolution is approved by both chambers and a
commission is appointed. The March 6 House debate
(there was none in the Senate) is instructive…
Majority Leader Donaldson and Minority
Leader Fineman make the case…
Lee Donaldson, R-Allegheny: …The resolution says that
our General Assembly today is inadequately equipped
and structured… We…struggle along as if we were
dealing with the state government which existed a
quarter of a century ago…The chief executive in many
instances has also become the chief legislator.
Herbert Fineman, D-Philadelphia: More important even
than the weakening of the legislature vis a vis the
executive is the weakening of the States…The heavy
concentration of power in Washington has had some
unfortunate consequences… Improving…legislative
performance is perhaps the chief ingredient in making
them (the States) efficient and responsive...
The 12 commissioners are deeply experienced
and widely respected, including:
A. James Reichley, Fortune Magazine editor, former
legislative aide to Gov. Scranton (House Republicans)
George M. Leader, former governor and state senator
Robert E. Woodside, former House majority and minority
leader, attorney general, and trial and appellate court
judge (Senate Republicans)
James A. Michener, Pulitzer prize winning author and
secretary to the 1968 Constitutional Convention (Senate
Democrats). Michener is elected co-chair.
The commission issues its report:
Toward Tomorrow’s Legislature (January 1969)
Based on extensive research and public hearings, the
110-page report makes 58 recommendations, creating
what one scholar called “…an agenda for a decade.”
Among the recommendations:
Increase compensation and staffing for House and
Senate members with the expectation that they would
give priority to their legislative duties as opposed to their
private sector occupations (Done)
Provide members and committees with offices (Done)
Require members to disclose financial interests (Done)
Toward Tomorrow’s Legislature
Create a permanent ethics committee (Done: Ethics
Committee and Commission established)
Respect caucuses but strengthen committees (Done, but
Improve the professional staffing of committees (Done)
Require fiscal notes on legislation (Done)
Increase public hearings on legislation (Done)
Toward Tomorrow’s Legislature
Reduce and align House and Senate committees (Done,
but not to 13 parallel committees)*
Open committee meetings and make committee votes
available to the press and public (Done)
Increase minority representation on committees (Done)
Create a legislative audit advisory commission (Done)
*The House had 33 committees in 1968.
Some recommendations were not (fully) done
Require lobbyists to register and report expenditures
(Expenditure reporting tried in 1998, completed in 2006)
Consolidate legislative service agencies (Not Done)
Establish a commission to set salaries for top officials in
all three branches (Done, then Undone)
Establish bipartisan, bicameral orientations for new
members on state structure and operations (Not Done,
and why just new members?)
Install electric voting in the Senate (Not Done!!!)
The commission does not recommend
reducing the size of the legislature…
As secretary of the 1968 Constitutional Convention,
Michener lost five times trying to make the House
smaller. Instead, the delegates for the first time fixed the
precise size of the legislature in the Constitution.
The commission: “Pennsylvania…is a populous state of
unusual economic, social, religious and ethnic diversity
(which) …may warrant a larger legislature than would be
appropriate for smaller, more homogeneous states.”
As commission co-chair, Michener filed a dissent.
Why do we have the 2nd largest legislature? 1874!
Making the legislature Too Big to Buy:
The Constitution of 1874
Reacting to vote-buying scandals,1873 convention
delegates almost double the legislature, increasing the
Senate from 33 to 50 and the House from 100 to 200.*
An 1873 convention delegate: I hope…that we shall
largely increase the number of the House, and let us
have a Legislature that cannot be corrupted...
But low-paid, poorly educated, unstaffed, part-time
legislators, often working in industries that lobbied them,
are still vulnerable to powerful organized interests.
*A complex apportionment formula allowed the House to rise slightly above 200 .
And the 1874 Constitution also increases the
legislature’s capacity to represent citizens.
Citizens represented by each House member were
reduced on average from 35,211 in 1870 to 21,308 in
1880, and by each Senator from 106,699 to 85,658.
In a step toward greater equality, the Constitution also
allows for the first time districts that are smaller than
counties and based on total residents, not just taxpayers.
However, each county is guaranteed 1 House member
and no city or county can have more than 8 Senators.
These limits are struck down after the US Supreme
Court’s one-person, one-vote decisions. The 1966
reapportionment also ends multi-member districts.
Balancing executive power…
By 1973, legislative salaries are doubled (from $7,200 in
1968 to $15,000) and professional staffing is on the rise.
In 1975, the four caucus leaders ask the Pennsylvania
Economy League to recommend improvements in the
state budget process.
Among the study’s recommendations: The General
Assembly should appropriate all federal funds.
In a $5 billion state budget, the governor is spending
$1.5 billion in federal funds without legislative oversight.
In a victory for all state legislatures, the US
Supreme Court upholds the Pennsylvania law
The professionally staffed House Appropriations
Committee documents how the executive has used its
control of federal funds to manipulate the legislature.
The General Assembly overrides the governor’s veto of
SB 1542 of 1976, prohibiting the Treasurer from
spending federal funds not appropriated by the
legislature. The legislature begins appropriating all
federal funds in line-item detail.
Gov. Shapp challenges the law. In landmark decisions,
the General Assembly wins in the PA Supreme Court (42) and in the US Supreme Court (8-1).
Balancing judicial power…
In 1993-94, employing staff lawyers aided by outside
counsel, the House impeaches (199-0) and the Senate
removes (49-0) Rolf Larsen from the Pennsylvania
Supreme Court for according special treatment to
Larsen is the first judge of any PA court removed from
office pursuant to legislative action since 1811.
Some issues end in a stand-off. The General Assembly
ignores two orders (1987 and 1996) by the PA Supreme
Court to pay for county court costs, and the court makes
no effort to enforce its orders.
Balancing the bureaucracy…
In the 1970s, the professionally staffed Appropriations
Committees begin holding extensive hearings to review
state agency budgets and program implementation.
Bureaucratic regulation explodes from the 1960s on. In
2009, for example, state agency regulations total 5,988
pages; laws enacted by the legislature total 946 pages.
In 1982, the General Assembly establishes the
Independent Regulatory Review Commission to work
with House and Senate committees in reviewing and
modifying, and potentially disapproving regulations.
Cooperation as well as conflict marks the postmodern era
In 1975, on its own bipartisan initiative, the Senate (with
House support) dramatically reduces the number of
gubernatorial appointees requiring a two-thirds vote for
confirmation and imposes deadlines on a failed process
that has deadlocked state government.
In 2006, the General Assembly re-enacts a lobbying
regulation law after reaching agreement with the
Supreme Court allowing lawyer-lobbyists to be covered.
In 2009-10, the General Assembly establishes an interbranch commission to investigate judicial corruption in
Responding to press exposés, budget battles,
and prosecutions, the General Assembly…
Professionalizes its administrative systems under
bipartisan committees (1978-80).
Ignores gubernatorial opposition and approves the
Attorney General as an elected prosecutor (1977-78).
Builds much-criticized surpluses (now being depleted)
after Gov. Casey vetoes the Senate’s budget (1988).
Repeals its 2005 pay raise, curtails late-night and lameduck sessions, lengthens notice before votes, clarifies
rules against the political use of public resources, and
cuts its spending by $45 million (in 2010 dollars).
“The Disappearing Capitol Press Corps”*
The legislature governs in a new media world
Internet technology gives citizens and critics new ways
to hold legislators accountable, assisted by a legislature
that is making more information available.
Some worry that falling revenues are forcing the press to
choose between watchdog and journal-of-record roles.
As Capitol news bureaus are cut back here and across
the US, are citizens learning enough about state policy
from professional journalists vs. bloggers, talk-show
hosts, and single-purpose advocates?
*Governing magazine cover story, January 2009.
Today’s General Assembly: large (1874) and
These characteristics involve tradeoffs in values.
Large legislatures arguably enhance representation;
they are more responsive to smaller communities and
minority groups and more accessible to citizens. Smaller
legislatures enhance deliberation, might cost less (but
not in California), and are easier to manage.
Professional legislatures are arguably more experienced
and better equipped to balance the other branches and
counter interest group influence. Part-time legislatures
cost less; members may have fewer ties to lobbyists and
are arguably less invested in staying in office.
Size and professionalism reflect intangible
values…and affect the legislative budget
Values like representation, deliberation, efficiency, and
balancing the other branches are difficult to quantify.
PA’s legislative budget is large compared to other states
(2nd to California), but small (and declining) as a share of
total state spending (about half of one percent).
You will hear next from witnesses who helped make and
implement key decisions to modernize our legislature.
History shaped today’s General Assembly.
Understanding history should shape tomorrow’s.
The Pennsylvania General Assembly Before and After the 1968 Legislative
Modernization Commission: A Brief History
Presented to the Pennsylvania General Assembly Members’ Symposium
Sponsored by the Pennsylvania Policy Forum
Joseph P. McLaughlin, Jr., PhD, director, Temple University Institute for Public
Richard A. Stafford, MS, distinguished service professor of public policy and
management, Heinz College, Carnegie Mellon University;
Michelle J. Atherton, MA, assistant director, Temple University Institute for
Megan Mullin, PhD, assistant professor of political science, Temple University;
Nathan Shrader, MS, PhD candidate in political science, Temple University
For a forthcoming text version of this history, go to [email protected]
The Pennsylvania Policy Forum is a consortium of professors in public and private
universities who teach and research state politics and policy chaired by David Y. Miller,
PhD, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh.
Research for this presentation was made possible by the William Penn Foundation and
the Heinz Endowment. The views and any errors are the author’s own.