Chris Satullo: Harrisburg: Is it inept or corrupt?

On a hot day this week in a big building in the imperial city, the chicken and the egg renewed their age-old dispute.

The site was the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. The topic was Pennsylvania, the Wisteria Lane of state governments.

Here was the day's chicken-or-egg riddle: Why does so little good policy get done in Harrisburg?

Is it that Pennsylvania's well-meaning wonks aren't adept at driving a civic agenda?

Or is it that, as Shirley Malcom of the Heinz Endowments bluntly put it, "the whole place is so broken, it screws up anything you try to do"?

For "broken," read "smugly corrupt."

Around the Brookings table sat a skilled array of the state's policy advocates, the nice people who churn out a learned report on, say, affordable housing, then roam the Capitol's hallways trying to find a lawmaker who'll read it on his way to his next round of free golf.

Also present were the state's dogged stalwarts of political reform. They were the ones asking, "How many Bonusgates, illegal pay raises, dead-of-night casino bills, cushy car leases, pension grabs, and ghost-worker scandals do we have to endure before you get Shirley's point?"

Monday's event was pulled together by Bruce Katz, a Brookings wonk who's been trying for several years to get Pennsylvania cracking on a "prosperity agenda." His take is that the state wastes too many bucks on balkanized local government and the fragmented sprawl that comes with it. Such mistakes doom you in a competitive global economy. The Rendell administration agrees, and has tried to pursue some of Brookings' prescriptions, with middling success.

The dialogue wasn't without its tensions. Some policy advocates warned that sweeping political reforms often have unintended consequences, undoing policy progress.

The underlying point: Policy advocates invest a lot of energy in learning to work the status quo, however unappetizing it might be. To get bills passed, they court savvy legislative champions - often the same people who do the things that make reformers blow a gasket (case in point, the brilliant and indicted State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo).

So policy types live with a dilemma: How do you blast the sorry spectacle of pigs feeding at the trough today, when tomorrow you're going to want to count their snouts so you can pass a bill to which you've devoted three years of your life?

To the mad-as-hell reformers, such thinking is what addictions counselors call "enabling behavior."

"Intelligent, timely and cost-effective policy decisions will be rare, if they happen at all, without creating a culture of integrity in our Capitol," said Tim Potts of the Democracy Rising reform group. Katz hoped to identify a few key political reforms that might sweep away obstacles to good policy. That didn't happen. Katz mused that "connecting these dots" is harder than it seems.

Yes, a scandal like the current "Bonusgate" might spur reforms. (Gee, wasn't the pay raise scandal supposed to do that?)

There's a pitfall, though, when reforms get rushed through in scandal's lightning glare. Ad hoc reforms can produce a sloppy hodge-podge with awkward results.

It might help to define "reform," our mental picture of success, more clearly. Then we could work backward from there to craft the rules that would further the ideal.

What would a reformed Capitol be like? My proposal: "A place where, when you lose, you can accept that you lost." In other words, the rules are clear, the process fair. You don't automatically suspect that the deck was stacked, a hidden lever got pulled, or a palm got greased.

So, you live with the result. Better luck next time.

I don't know if such a legislature exists in America. I do know that, if Pennsylvania had one, we'd live in a safer, greener, more prosperous place.


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