‘Little Guy, ‘First Family’ in control of Pa. legislative process

Pennsylvania Budget
State lawmakers like to cite the Little Guy as justification for certain laws they approve or deny.

The time has come to reveal to the voting public the real reason that legislative decisions reflect outside influence. Especially when we’re talking about the state budget. It isn’t pretty.

Legislators and their families have worked hard and sacrificed much to achieve elected office. For some, it is a life ambition. They want to get re-elected. This pressure is the single most significant outside influence on legislative decision making.

Sadly, re-election is controlled by one man – the Little Guy.

When the phrase “What about ‘the Little Guy’?” is uttered on the floor of either the House or the Senate, debate is suspended. All consideration must focus on the Little Guy’s well being.

In some measure Little Guy’s power is shared by Mom and Pop. The history of their political involvement is not entirely clear, but historians note that Mom and Pop early-on owned a grocery store in rural Pennsylvania.

In legislative debate many years later, a reference was made to a “Mom and Pop Oil Company,” so it seems they have prospered over the years. The apparent sharing of power with the Little Guy may, in fact, be illusory. Perhaps Mom and Pop are actually the parents of the Little Guy.  Their immediate relatives include the Folks. Together – Mom and Pop, the Little Guy and the Folks – constitute the all-powerful First Family of Pennsylvania.

Although the needs of the First Family must be met, it is difficult to figure out what they want. That’s because they are framed in contradictory terms. Some examples of things the newly elected learn:

  • The Family wants more government than they are willing to pay for. This is not much of a challenge for a first-time candidate. That’s because he/she can promise to provide all that is wanted without an increase in taxes because he/she will eliminate the waste, corruption and inefficiency in government.

The difficulty begins when the amount of waste-corruption-inefficiency, even if it could be replaced with perfect virtue, does not amount to anything near the money that is required to provide all the anticipated and desired services.

This leads to consideration of tried and true techniques such as “free money”­ – gambling revenues, one-time windfalls etc.; borrowing to spend now and pay later; cooking the revenue and expenditures estimates – and deferring painful decisions.

When these techniques run their course, the final fallback must be called into play. The Family could have all they want at no additional cost if it weren’t for Others looting the Treasury. If you are from the big city, the Others are the rural folks who dominate the Legislature. If you are from the rural areas, the Others are those from the city

  • The Family is outraged by pork-barrel politics, but demands that its representative bring home the bacon.
  • The Family wants Money Out of Politics, but refuses to participate in the politics that self-government requires. It has become a consumer of government, rather than a producer of it. Rather than forming opinions by directly observing candidates and/or discussion with their neighbors, the Family has chosen to be influenced by advertising campaigns, especially television.

Candidates then adopt media-oriented campaigns, which by their nature are enormously expensive and require candidates, especially those of modest means, to solicit campaign contributions from special interests.

  • The Family expects its representative to replace the services formerly rendered by ward politicians, but remains committed to the idea that good public policy is the primary role of legislators, not voters.
  • Legislative leaders are debating a  proposal to balance the budget with an expansion of the gambling and alcohol tax base. On this point, the Family’s opinion is likely to be divided by its members’ respective habits.
  • The budget deficit is officially put at $2 billion to $3 billion, but it may be more accurately estimated as in excess of $70 billion. This bill will eventually be paid by the progeny of the Family – unless The Little Guy grows up very quickly.

Self-government requires the First Family and each of us (its distant relatives) to determine the direction of our state and nation. Many of our elected representatives are principled and competent people, but they can’t make good decisions in the context of voter non-participation. To govern is to decide. It’s time for a family meeting.

Robert O’Donnell was elected to the state House of Representatives in a special election in June 1974. He later served as House Majority Leader and Speaker of the House. In December 1993, he resigned to run for governor, losing to Lt. Gov. Mark Singel in a crowded Democratic primary in 1994. He can be reached at bob@odonnellassociates.com.