by Lowman S. Henry | November 05, 2007

PA legislature has lost all credibility

“The pay raise lowered many Pennsylvanians’ respect for the legislature and shredded its dignity and credibility.”

Are those the words of Clean Sweep activist Russ Diamond? Or, perhaps uttered by an angry radio talk show host? No, the comment came from State Representative Tom Tangretti of Greensburg who recently announced his plans to retire after a 20-year career in the state House of Representatives.

Tangretti voted against the now infamous pay raise. He spoke out in favor of its repeal. He even challenged his own party’s leadership. Having personally acted in an honorable manner it appears he cannot any longer stomach serving in a legislative body that has brought so much dishonor upon itself.

Even after a wave of voter revulsion resulted in one quarter of the General Assembly being replaced last year, the legislature has been unable to significantly reform itself, or come to grips in any meaningful way with the many serious problems which confront the commonwealth. As Representative Pete Dailey said recently: “For the 50 people elected here as reformers, your record right now is zero. And for the rest of us sitting here as legislators that were here prior to the election . . . our record is zero.”

In fact, the crisis of confidence in state government continues to grow. Not only are most reform measures stalled or dead, but an investigation by Attorney General Tom Corbett into the so-called “bonus-gate” scandal has further shaken the legislature.

There has for years been a revolving door of legislative staff taking leave during election years to campaign for their bosses and returning to their jobs in the “off years.” Corbett is investigating whether or not that practice has crossed the line and become a defacto taxpayer-paid subsidy for campaign staff. Subpoenas have been flying, at least one former legislator is singing like a canary, and indictments appear to be imminent.

If indictments occur they likely will reach to the highest levels of legislative leadership. Corbett, himself up for re-election next year, will have to turn a blind eye to party affiliation when seeking indictments. It is possible, if not probable that legislators from both parties will be indicted; meaning the reputation of the entire institution will be further sullied.

And then there is the ongoing appearance of a legislature for sale to special interests. The Associated Press recently reported that $37 million was spent by lobbyists during the first half of this year to influence legislation. Included among the perks lobbyists bestowed on legislators were meals, airplane tickets, hotels rooms, and other gifts.

When they aren’t showering gifts upon lawmakers, many lobbyists are busy stuffing contributions into their campaign coffers. It is no coincidence that the most influential special interests in town are also those who contribute the most money to campaigns. Go to a fundraiser for almost any legislator and most of those in the room will be lobbyists.

It is an unseemly symbiotic relationship. Special interests pay lobbyists, lobbyists contribute to legislators, legislators pass laws favorable to special interests. While every interest, special or not, has a right to free speech and a right to advocate on their own behalf; the system in Harrisburg has become so overt and so pervasive as to be downright tawdry.

Add all this together and throw in the inability of the General Assembly to take effective action on a wide range of pressing issues and you get a corruption tinged, dysfunctional institution that is utterly failing to serve its intended purpose.

Worse the Pennsylvania legislature has become an embarrassment. So much so that even a 20-year veteran like Tom Tangretti feels the need to retire while he can still do so with his personal dignity intact. This raises several concerns: first, if the good guys retire with what does that leave us? And, second how many potential candidates will pass on seeking legislative office because they don’t want their good names to be associated with the cesspool on the Susquehanna?

All of this presents a challenge to those members of the General Assembly who are reform-minded, who are of character, and who seriously want to do the work of we the people. The time has come for them to get off the back benches and take charge. The situation is getting worse by the day and will soon – if it has not already – be past the point of no return.