HARRISBURG - From the presidential race on down, making government smaller is on the lips of most every candidate for public office.

Against that background, Pennsylvania lawmakers on Monday began a historic debate on reducing their own ranks.

The state House's consideration of a bill to trim the 203-member chamber by 50 seats marks the first time in 45 years that lawmakers have taken up such a proposal.

The 50-member state Senate would not be affected.

Because the legislation would amend the state constitution, it would have to be passed in two consecutive two-year sessions of the General Assembly and then approved by voters in a statewide referendum.

If it clears those not-insignificant hurdles, the change would not be effective until 2022.

The bill's chief sponsor, House Speaker Sam Smith (R., Jefferson), said he wants to make the chamber more efficient by making it smaller.

"It's something I saw not as Republican or Democrat, but about the ability of a body to do its best work," Smith said. "It needs to be more deliberative on the issues."

With 253 members in two chambers, Pennsylvania's General Assembly is the largest full-time legislature in the country and the second-largest in total seats behind New Hampshire, a little state with a big legislature of 424 part-time lawmakers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The bill being debated Monday was loaded with amendments - 67 by last count - including some that would reduce the chamber by fewer seats, and others that were unrelated, such as amending child-abuse laws.

One proposed amendment, to create a "citizen legislature" of part-time lawmakers, a unicameral body with 407 districts, was offered by Democrat Whip Mike Hanna (D., Centre).

That idea failed on a vote of 162-32.

More than 50 amendments remained to be dealt with when the House called it a day at 6 p.m. Monday.

Debate on the bill is expected to continue Tuesday, with a final vote either Tuesday or Wednesday.

The idea of a smaller legislature has an influential backer in the state Senate - Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), who is cosponsor of a bill that would reduce the Senate to 40 members and the House to 161, said his spokesman, Erik Arneson.

The House proposal would shrink that chamber for the first time since 1967, when the state amended its constitution to keep the total at 203. (Before that, the total had climbed as high as 210.) The change came during the state's 1967-68 constitutional convention.

Though some critics warn that such conventions open the door to wacky ideas, the head of one Harrisburg watchdog group said that was still a better route to change than going through the legislature.

"It's the citizens who ought to be making the decision at a constitutional convention," said Tim Potts, founder of the group Democracy Rising. "The House is ensuring what they want, not what the people want."

Contact Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com or follow @inkyamy on Twitter.