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Transactional Democracy

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

In the 1970's, the people of Emmaus, Pa., in their collective wisdom, decided to send a man named Joe Zeller to represent them in the Pennsylvania Legislature.

Zeller was a Democrat of a conservative stripe who brought to his job a mixture of prejudice and paranoia that wouldn't have been so offensive if he had just kept quiet about them. But, Joe was a garrulous guy who could never be restrained from speaking on the floor of the House. And when he got up to share his insights, it was a signal for legislators to either start rolling their eyes, opening their mail or heading to the back of the chamber for a smoke.

In short, Joe was a wing-nut.

At the time, I wondered how the people of Emmaus could send such a man to represent them.  Then, I happened to be in PennDOT one day when Joe marched in with a sizeable load of files under his arm and got in line at the license issuance/renewal window.

It turned out that Joe was a one-man tag service for his constituents.

Instead of sending in their license applications and fees and waiting for two or three weeks for the PennDOT bureaucracy to process them, they gave them to Joe and he did it - at no charge, with a quicker turnaround time.

In a way, it was a trade.  Joe got to be a nut and his constituents got speedy handling of their PennDOT paperwork.

Soon thereafter, PennDOT opened a separate processing window for legislators only.  Was this to curry favor with these powerful elected officials? Not at all.  It was to keep the regular citizens from having the bad luck of stepping into a line where the guy in front of them wanted to process 75 applications.  Eventually, it would have led to homicide.

I thought of Joe the other day when I read the state grand jury's report on the legislature.  What was a Mom-and-Pop operation in the old days has become a huge machine.

The House Republican Caucus alone has 20 staffers whose sole job is to process constituent's license and tag applications, funneled through their state legislators.  And that staff handled 123,500 such applications just last year. 

There are four caucuses in the General Assembly.  I can only imagine what the grand total of applications handled is, but 400,000 to 500,000 is a good guess.

Meanwhile, PennDOT has 35 employees whose sole task is to process these applications that emanate from the legislature, something even Gov. Ed Rendell was shocked to learn.

He said he would put an end to it.

In many ways, when it comes to practices and habits in the legislature, nothing has really changed in the last 30 years except the scale of the operations.  The legislature is now - in terms of staff and budget - a behemoth compared to years ago.

For instance, Joe had to do his own PennDOT grunt work because he was despised by House Speaker Herb Fineman, who used his power to deny him support staff.  Later, that practice was changed to guarantee legislators a minimum of staff in Harrisburg and at home.  (As I recall, the home office staff allowance was set at $7,500 a year, a pittance compared to today's standards.)

The grand jury makes a lot of sensible recommendations on ways to check these practices, but it also has some goofy ones. One of them is to revert to a part-time legislature that meets only three or four months a year.

I don't think you can roll back the clock in that way. State government is too big and complex to strip the legislature of its support staff and have it meet only a few months a year.

The other part that is odd is the grand jury tsk-tsking about WAMS, the small grants legislators slip into state budgets, and the PennDOT tag operations and the fact that the legislature is organized into partisan caucuses.

How can the grand jury - how can any senient citizen - be blind to the fact that partisanship is the organizing principle of American government?  This nation has been, is now and always will be highly partisan.  We can decry that (though I don't) but we can't wish it away.

As to the other stuff, before we spend too much time being shocked and surprised, let's stop and think. Legislators don't go door-to-door forcing unsuspecting citizens to give them their PennDOT paperwork. And they don't go around to civic and cultural groups making them submit applications for WAMs at gunpoint.

Legislators are, for the most part, submitting to consumer demand. Are they trading licenses and tags and WAMS for support? Or are we?

 

Tom Ferrick Jr. is senior editor of Metropolis.

  

 

 

 

 

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