By Tom Ferrick Jr.
An old City Editor of mine once opined that there are no new stories, only new reporters.
I thought of that adage in reading the piece in the Sunday (Aug. 15) Inquirer about the staffing patterns in the state legislature. To me, it was déjà vu all over again.
To begin with, the legislature spends a lot of money on staff -- $100 million for 2,918 employees. On paper, that works out to 11.5 employees per House and Senate member. In reality, it does not.
As the Inquirer piece points out, there are big disparities among legislators over the amount of staff they have. It cited the example of veteran Rep. Dwight Evans, who has 12 staffers in his home office who are paid a total of $822,00 a year, versus newcomer Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown whose has two part-time and two fulltime staffers in her home office in West Philly who are paid a total of $63,000 a year.
The piece quotes Tim Potts, who works with the goo-goo group Democracy Rising as saying: "There is no rhyme or reason to the system."
Potts is wrong. There is a lot of rhyme and reason to the system. It is designed to work this way.
Senior members of the legislature, who often head committees, have always had access to more money for staff than backbenchers and newcomers. And legislative leaders have always used money for staff, in Harrisburg and at home, to reward friends and punish enemies - the bad boys and girls in their caucus who won't go along to get along.
The system the Inquirer described has been in place for decades, with two important differences: It has gotten bigger and more costly and it is less arbitrary than in the bad old days.
Until the late 1970's, a legislator who fell out of favor with the leadership could find himself relegated to broom-closest office in a remote corner of the Capitol, with only a part-timer to answer his phone. And he would get no - zero - help in his home office. (This was especially true in the House, with its 203 members. Senators, then and now, were generally better treated.)
Now legislators are guaranteed a baseline amount for a home office and staff. If you want more, though, you must climb up the seniority ladder to a committee chairmanship and also be a good and loyal caucus solder.
Another lever of control used by legislative leaders is campaign money. As reported in a recent Metropolis special report, House and Senate leaders have become their own super-PACS, raising millions each year and doling this money out to incumbents and favored candidates for open seats.
To use one example, Dwight Evans raised $1.7 million for his campaign fund in the last (2008) election cycle, but had no opponent in either the primary or general election. How did he spend the money? About $900,000 went to fellow incumbents or to the House Democratic Campaign Committee, whose mission is to elect Democrats, mostly to open seats.
Some of this giving makes political sense. Evans, who is chair of the House Appropriations Committee, benefits from having Democrats in the majority in the House. He is helping to build that majority by providing money to political campaigns in contested districts. He is also winning friends for when the time comes for him to be re-elected to his chairmanship.
None of this is new. The only difference between now and, say, 30 years ago, is that back in those days legislative leaders and members were often products of party organizations and the organization enforced discipline. Today, money does.
The result is that more and more power is concentrated in the hands of leadership, to the detriment of the rank-and-file.
The surprising thing is that rank-and-file legislators let it happen. In effect, they have allowed themselves to be infantilized by becoming dependent on the largesse of legislative leaders. They are selling themselves for a bigger office, more staff and maybe a WAM or two to be inserted into the state budget.
They do have the power to change the situation.
After all, legislators - sitting in their party caucuses - elect their legislative leaders. And they also get to determine caucus and legislative rules. They could elect leaders who promise a more equal distribution of money for staff and they could change the rules to guarantee a minimum of Harrisburg and home office help.
Legislative leaders have staved off this kind of rebellion by growing the size of the pie - increasing the legislature's budget over the years far in excess of inflation - so they could slice off larger pieces, even for the junior members.
This means that no serious change will be coming from within the legislature, despite the recent scandals, indictments and convictions of legislature leaders over misuse of legislative funds.
The legislature should act to reform itself, make its operations fairer and more transparent, and it should also find a way to limit outside influence by placing limits on campaign contributions. Will it? Almost certainly not
The leaders at the top have no compelling motive to change the system - since it works so well for them. As to the rank-and-file members, most of them have been bought off. Can we expect them to lead the rebellion? Almost certainly not.
That's like asking a jellyfish to have a spine.
Tom Ferrick Jr. is senior editor of Metropolis