HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania has the largest full-time legislature in the nation and its lawmakers are among the highest paid in the country, yet, increasingly, they’re doing less and less actual lawmaking.
The number of bills introduced in the legislature has fallen by more than 20% from its peak in the early 1990s, and the number of bills actually passed into law has fallen even more dramatically in the years since, according to an analysis of four decades of legislative data by The Inquirer and Spotlight PA.
Lawmakers are filling the gap by introducing far more resolutions, the analysis found, often purely ceremonial statements that create task forces, urge Congress to take action on an issue, honor notable Pennsylvanians, or mark special occasions like Banana Split Day on Aug. 25 or Hot Dog Day on July 17.
The trends track with academic research showing Republicans and Democrats in the legislature are more polarized and less willing to cross political lines to reach the compromise often needed to pass legislation.
“It’s not the way it used to be,” said former State Rep. Bob Godshall, a Republican from Montgomery County who retired last year after 36 years in office. When lawmakers went to Harrisburg for session in the beginning of his career, “it was for a purpose,” Godshall said.
Legislative leaders and some outside experts caution there is only so much information to be gleaned by analyzing the number of bills, which speaks only to the amount of legislation and not its contents. For example, lawmakers sometimes forgo individual bills and instead tuck them into larger, omnibus measures. Or they could be focusing on more complex or higher-quality legislation, or spending more time helping constituents.
“Just sheer volume of bills, whether introduced, voted, passed, or signed does not tell the whole story,” said Mike Straub, a spokesperson for House Republicans. “We believe the success of our chamber is not measured in bill volume, but in how our constituents respond to our members.”
His words were echoed by Republicans in Senate leadership and Democrats in both chambers. Many of them said the first six months of this year were particularly productive, perhaps a sign that things could be turning around. Lawmakers — who earn annual salaries ranging from $88,610 for freshmen to $138,327 for top leadership, plus other perks and benefits — have been on summer recess since June, and will return to the Capitol this month.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, a Democrat from Allegheny County, said he hopes to see more movement on legislation this fall. That hope, however, comes on the heels of an angry eruption earlier this year when debate over a cash-assistance program for the poor devolved into a shouting match.
“I think that we should consider having some policy that provides for members the opportunity, possibly, to vote on some measures that sometimes get stalled,” Costa said.
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As part of their analysis, The Inquirer and Spotlight PA examined legislative data tracking bills and their progress in each two-year session dating to 1975-76. The most activity came in the three sessions from 1991 to 1996, when lawmakers introduced an average of 5,081 bills per session. During that time, power in the legislature and governor’s office was sometimes held by one party and sometimes split between Democrats and Republicans.
The number of bills introduced hit new lows in the three most recently completed sessions, from 2013 through 2018, with an average of 3,903 bills each. In the 2013-14 session, Republicans controlled the legislature and governor’s office. In the years since, a Democrat has served as governor and the GOP has run the legislature.
In the last full session, 2017-18, half of all state representatives introduced 10 bills or fewer.
More than 600 bills were passed in each of the four consecutive sessions from 1975 through 1982, when power was sometimes held by one party and sometimes split. Last session, when Republicans controlled the legislature and a Democrat held the governor’s office, that number was 286.
Those largely ceremonial resolutions, however, continued to see dramatic increases. Since the early 1970s, the number introduced has more than quadrupled to 1,670 last session. Godshall said the trend was “ridiculous,” adding that resolutions are primarily intended to generate publicity for lawmakers.
“There are so many resolutions, there are so many days that are dedicated to this or that, that we have to run out of days,” he said.
Their use can be partly attributed to the difficulty finding compromise for meaningful legislation. Some veteran lawmakers said it has been harder to get work done as the legislature has become more polarized, especially when a wave of conservatives were elected in 2010 and, more recently, with a slew of new, progressive Democrats.
Researchers at Princeton University and the University of Houston examined legislators’ voting records in state capitols across the country to measure the growing divide between liberals and conservatives and its impact on a functioning government.
From 1996 to 2016, that divide got significantly worse in the Pennsylvania House, while in the Senate, the gap slightly improved. In the most recent election, which is not yet included in the data, a wave of more progressive Democrats joined the House and Senate, which could push the parties farther apart.
State Rep. Thomas Caltagirone, a Democrat from Berks County who has been in office for 43 years, said shifts are palpable. He blamed “young firebrands in both parties” in the House.
“Years ago, you could negotiate and compromise on various issues, but now it’s like a line in the sand — don’t you dare cross it,” Caltagirone said.
But he also suggested there’s just not as much for the legislature to fix these days.
“Part of it is that maybe we’ve addressed most of the issues that needed to be addressed,” Caltagirone said. “I mean, the problems, some of them are getting solved. Some of the issues have gone away. That’s not to say there’s not areas that need to be addressed.”
State Rep. Jordan Harris, a Democrat from Philadelphia and the party’s whip in the House, suggested some lawmakers are trying to be more deliberate about which bills they introduce. He brought forth a total of eight bills (and 15 resolutions) in his first six years in Harrisburg, and this year introduced two so far, the data show.
“It takes a lot of effort to actually focus on different pieces of legislation and shepherd them through the process to get to the governor’s desk,” Harris said. “I don’t introduce 40, 50 pieces of legislation a session. I introduce a few … that I can focus on.”
To become law, a bill must survive committee votes and multiple floor votes in both chambers before going to the governor for approval.
Harris said passing bills is particularly difficult for the minority party. Of the 87 that became law so far this session, only one had a Democratic prime sponsor.
In recent years, some lawmakers have floated the idea of trimming their own ranks and cutting the size of the 253-member state legislature. That would require an amendment to the state constitution. To do so, a bill must pass in identical form in two consecutive legislative sessions, and then get approval from voters.
Those efforts have failed.
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