Ferrick@Fels: Forever Incumbents

August 03, 2010

By Tom Ferrick Jr.

We may have to invent a new way to describe the form of government we have in Harrisburg. We have a popularly elected governor, so we can call that democracy in action. But what about the legislature?

Nominally, all 203 state House members and 25 of the 50 state senators are up for re-election in any two-year cycle. In reality, most races are uncontested, with the opposite party candidate either a patsy or non-existent.

This year, for instance, 70 of the incumbent House members have no major party opposition inn November. The same is true of 11 of the 25 senators standing for election.

Their re-election is a fait accompli.

This is not an anomaly. In every election year in this decade, anywhere from 80 to 100 incumbents were given free rides because they had no opponents.

But, here is the anomaly. While elections have become less or non-competitive, the amount of money raised for these “campaigns” (quotes intentional) has more than doubled.

According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, money raised for legislative campaigns in 2000 totaled $34 million. By 2008, it has risen to $70.3 million. Needless to say, most of the money went to incumbents. You can look up the details at the Institute’s great website at www.followthemoney.org

What’s up here? Does the fact that incumbents can raise so much money scare away opponents? Or does that fact they have such weak opposition mean incumbents have easier access to money because the givers know the legislator will stay in power? The answer to both questions is yes.

This does not means there are not competitive seats, but most are open seats, where the incumbent has retired, died or been convicted of a crime. It results in crowded primaries and more vigorously contested general elections. The money faucets get turned on for these dozen or so races. A record $2.3 million was spent in 2008 in Westmoreland County in a race for an open state Senate seat. In areas where party allegiance is shifting from red to blue, as it in the Philadelphia suburbs, House races can cost $1 million.

There is a name for this gorging on money. Obscene is one of them. But what can we call it more broadly? The civic-book definition of democracy does not really fit because democracy implies a level of competition and true citizen participation.

The best label for this kind of government is an oligarchy of incumbents. It is smaller than you would think. Most of the power is concentrated in the hands of legislative leaders – the House Speaker, the President Pro Tem of the Senate, the majority and minority floor leaders and appropriations chairs, who in recent years have become, de facto, super political action committees, raking in millions and then disbursing the money to finance contested races or to donate to fellow incumbents. They use the money consolidate their power.

In the last election cycle, for instance, Philadelphia state Rep. Dwight Evans, who is chair of the House Appropriations Committee, raised $1.7 million for his re-election campaign. He really didn’t need it because he had no opponent in either the primary or general election. He gave most of his money to fellow incumbents or to the House Democratic Campaign Committee, which was working to elect more Democrats.

In the last election cycle (2007-2008) House and Senate, Democratic and Republican leaders fed $20 million into their chambers’ campaign committees to finance and run contested elections.

It wasn’t by accident that we ended up with an oligarchy. It was designed to be that way, through two principal ways.

First, we have a political reapportionment process, where incumbents get to draw the lines for their districts and others. They tend to draw districts that are a lock for one party or another. The rule, above all else, is to protect incumbents – D or R. It doesn’t matter. It is a rare example of political bipartisanship.

Second, Pennsylvania is one of the last states to set no limits on campaign contributions. You can give as much as you like, as often as you like. Giving by a single Political Action Committee or individuals can easily rise to the million dollar level.

Legislative leaders solicit much of this money and direct where it goes.

In other words, we have an oligarchy of incumbents fueled by special interest money.

I wonder what the Founding Fathers would think. They were worldly and wise men, but I may have made them throw up to think they had a hand in creating this.

If we took re-apportionment out of the hands of the incumbents and if we limited the amount of money PACs and individual could give, we would take a step towards re-democratizing state government.

I mention this in connection with the recent indictments and convictions of state legislative leaders, who were accused of using state money to pay bonuses to legislative employees who worked on political campaigns. Since the money in question was taxpayer money, it became the proper subject of an investigation.

But, keep it in context. The amount misused is peanuts compared to the millions raked in and spent in any given election cycle to product and defend the oligarchy of incumbents.

With the recent prosecutions, we’ve captured some mice. But, the monster is still at large.

Tom Ferrick, Jr., a journalist with more than 35 years of experience
as a reporter, editor and columnist, is writing a regular column to
keep the greater Fels community tuned in to Philadelphia.  He is
currently Senior Editor at Metropolis, a webiste offering in-depth news, analysis, and commentary about the Philadelphia region.

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