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For a better Pennsylvania: Part 2 - reduce incumbent protections

There are factors beyond gerrymandering that discourage political competition in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania’s capitol is a safe zone for incumbents.
Pennsylvania’s capitol is a safe zone for incumbents.Read moreMATT ROURKE / AP

This is the second of five planned weekly columns, each dealing with one area that, if reformed, would make state government and politics better.

If you're a state lawmaker or member of Congress seeking reelection, odds are with you.

In fact, odds suggest you can stay in office as long as you want.

Just look at Pennsylvania.

During the last 30 years, over 15 election cycles, the average reelection rate for state House and Senate incumbents is 97.5 percent.

Why so high?

Three choices: first, voters are wildly appreciative of their elected lawmakers; second, voters don't know or care about their elected lawmakers; third, there are powerful advantages to incumbency.

Let me suggest there's little of the first, lots of the second and tons of the third.

This column focuses on the third.

It links to last week's column on campaign finance that noted there are no limits on what's raised or spent in Pennsylvania — one of only 11 such states, and the lone Northeastern state.

This gives incumbents, who constantly raise money, an edge. And because incumbents win at such high rates, why would anyone give to a challenger?

It's democracy with an asterisk.

But more than money keeps the playing field uneven, limits civic participation, and leaves the state stuck in a hamster wheel of sameness.

There are reasons voters in seven consecutive Franklin and Marshall College polls since October 2015 say Pennsylvania's biggest problem is government and politicians.

There are reasons why in five of those seven polls, nothing else — not education, not taxes, not the economy — comes close.

The reasons are flawed fundamentals, one of which is incumbent protections.

You know about gerrymandering — politicians drawing their own districts to ensure their reelections, especially in congressional races. You may know we're a national leader. New York University School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice says the "most extreme levels" of gerrymandering are in Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

It's calculated diminution of competition. And it perpetuates partisanship.

The grassroots Fair Districts PA is educating voters on the issue. Its website updates anti-gerrymandering legislation, suggesting action that citizens can take. And pending litigation offers hope for reform.

But there are other factors (and lack of factors) protecting incumbents.

We've got no provision for recall elections. Unlike in 19 other states, citizens can't chuck poor performers.

We have no term limits. Unlike in 15 other states, our lawmakers can stay forever, amassing massive pensions. Former Philadelphia state Rep. Mark Cohen, a Democrat, stayed 42 years. (He was just elected to a 10-year term on Common Pleas Court.)

There are no provisions for initiative and/or referendum. Unlike in 26 other states, citizens can't petition for a law or constitutional amendment, or petition to get a popular vote on any new law passed by the legislature.

"A good way to get people more involved and more interested in political issues is initiative and referendum," says Robert Speel, a Penn State political science associate professor with a focus on state politics. "It would interest voters and make lawmakers more responsive."

So, of course, we don't have that.

Lack of such tools leaves average folks small recourse.

I constantly hear from readers about lawmakers' lack of action and accountability over pick-your-issue who ask, "What can we do?"

(Don't tell me about the ballot box. I'll deal with that in an upcoming column.)

The point is, the deck is stacked. And not in favor of public interest.

Remember, lawmakers have lots of reasons to maintain a quiet status quo.

Base pay is $86,479 with annual automatic raises (sixth largest state, second highest pay); 14 legislative leaders get more, $116,000 to $135,000. There's great health care, generous pensions and expenses, no receipts required.

All for a "full-time" body that this year scheduled just 72 voting days, displayed deep dysfunction, and enacted a late budget with big borrowing and greatly expanded gambling.

So it goes. And will continue until voters get informed, organize, press their lawmakers, especially leadership (all of whom are found at to address fundamentals of a system badly in need of reforms.