(*This piece has been updated to correctly reflect the return dates for the state House and Senate)
By Mark O’Keefe
Pennsylvania lawmakers left Harrisburg on June 28 for their annual summer recess. And what a recess it will be. If only, we all had such recesses.
*The 203 members of state House of Representatives won’t be back in session for almost three months, returning on Sept. 17. The 50-member state Senate will reconvene a week later, on Sept. 23.
Neither chamber will be back for long. Over the last four months of 2019, the House will be in session for 24 days and the Senate for 15.
And it’s not like their schedule was all that grueling in the first six months of the year. The House was in session for 51 days while the Senate was in session for 38 days.
But believe it or not, both chambers were in session for even fewer days last year with the House in session for 43 days and the Senate for 46 days.
However, even with the increase in session days this year, lawmakers were still not present enough to deal with all the problems facing the Commonwealth. No wonder everyone complains that the state Legislature never gets anything done. They’re never in session to get anything done.
To be fair, lawmakers do more than meet for session days, which are the only days actual votes can be taken. They attend all sorts of committee hearings both in Harrisburg and across the state.
They also have to make themselves available to their constituents back home in all sorts of ways. There’s no doubt they have busy schedules. But how much of their time is spent actually helping residents and how much of their time is spent on getting re-elected?
That’s the question.
A big part of the problem is the schedule for most lawmakers. Most come to Harrisburg Sunday afternoon or evening. They meet with their leaders or fellow lawmakers on Monday to discuss what’s going on. The real action takes place mostly on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Thursday is the day for lawmakers to get out of Harrisburg and head for home. Friday is the day for legislators to get out in public. That’s when you see them at high school football or basketball games or at various lunches and dinners. For the most part it’s a meet-and-greet day thinly disguised as a campaign trail.
Most lawmakers spend Saturday at home with their families and then return to Harrisburg on Sunday if they’re in session that week. You have to think a lot more could be accomplished if the Legislature was in session for even four days a week instead of three.
But it’s been this way for a long time Back in 1970, the House was in session for 56 days and the Senate for 57 days. And while the Republicans have controlled both chambers for years, you don’t hear much complaining from Democrats about the lack of session days.
Lawmakers could tighten the schedule if they wanted. You have to think that the real reason for the light calendar is that legislators just don’t want to vote all that often.
After all with every vote someone’s ox gets gored. Enemies are created and re-elections can become uncomfortable. It’s much better to just talk about an issue but never really do anything about it.
This all wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t costing taxpayers a pretty penny to send these men and women to do nothing in Harrisburg.
The salary for the 253 lawmakers is $88,610 plus additional money for living expenses and pensions. In addition, taxpayers have to fork over even more money for all their staffers and the fringe benefits that come along with them. Legislative leaders are also paid more.
Don’t even bring up plans to reduce the number of lawmakers. The House of Representatives shot down such a plan last October by a vote of 114-76. That measure would have reduced the number of House lawmakers from 203 to 151 and Senate members from 50 to 38.
In the end, the light fall schedule certainly will make it difficult to get anything of substance passed before the end of the year. Of course, such action is unlikely anyway because of the huge differences of opinions between Republicans and Democrats, including Gov. Wolf.
But maybe there would at least be a chance of something being done if lawmakers were present enough to actually vote on something.
Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.