Time to cook Pennsylvania’s “lame-duck” session

It is fundamental to democracy that voters have information–about candidates, about issues, about proposed solutions to problems. It also is fundamental that voters have information in time to influence the laws they will have to pay for and live with, as well as to guide their choice of public officials who make and sign those laws.

This month, Pennsylvania proves once again that it fails these fundamental tests of democracy. This month, our General Assembly and our governor will inflict upon us another ‘lame-duck’ session.

Lame-duck sessions–legislative sessions that occur after the election–are not a necessary evil. They’re just an evil. They don’t even exist in 39 other states, and most of the remaining 11 states rarely use them. But in Pennsylvania, this un-democratic practice is a way of legislative and gubernatorial life.

Why are lame-duck sessions un-democratic? There are several reasons.

First and foremost, lame-duck sessions allow–even encourage–legislators to postpone important decisions until they cannot be held accountable for them. Having elections without knowing a legislator’s full voting record is like giving students a high school diploma before the final exams. It’s simply wrong.

Second, it allows lawmakers who have been defeated–whose constituents have declared they don’t want the lawmakers to represent them–to continue enacting laws. Whose idea of democracy is this?

Third, lame-duck sessions are an open invitation to mischief. This year, there is talk about yet another pay raise for lawmakers, on top of the annual pay raises they already get. There are also rumors of another increase in the gas tax. Past years have brought us many other things that lawmakers should have voted on before the election or not at all.

Very simply, if legislators don’t have the courage to vote on these issues before the election, they shouldn’t have the ability to vote on them afterward.

Remember: Nothing our lawmakers do is so urgent that it can’t wait for the rest of us to express our opinions about it. Even nearing the end of the fiscal year when there is urgency to pass a state budget, that urgency is manufactured. It is a sign of mismanagement, not leadership, that the most important job legislators have to do each year so often becomes a crisis.

The same can be said of lame-duck sessions. A well-managed legislature, as most other states prove every year, can accomplish its work before election day. But in Pennsylvania, this practice has become so ingrained that our legislature will be in session more days between Nov. 8 and 30 than in the entire month of October.

It’s too late to do anything about this year’s lame-duck session. No one believes that enough legislators are so committed to democracy that they will refuse to participate in this biennial travesty.

But perhaps there are some lawmakers who will take up the banner of true democracy when the next session of the General Assembly begins in January. Perhaps Gov. Ed Rendell will make true democracy something worth fighting for as he prepares for re-election in 2006.

We as citizens, taxpayers and voters can encourage all of them to stand for true democracy. We can send them a citizen resolution that looks like this:

WHEREAS, the voters of Pennsylvania have the right to see a legislator’s and a governor’s complete record before deciding whether to re-elect him or her; and

WHEREAS, the General Assembly and governors have a history of enacting unpopular and flawed laws in lame-duck session; and

WHEREAS, Pennsylvania stands nearly alone in the nation in its extensive use of lame-duck sessions to deal with both controversial and ordinary issues; and

WHEREAS, delaying consideration of public issues until the end of legislative sessions demonstrates gross mismanagement of the people’s business; and

WHEREAS, there is no legal requirement to act on any public issues during the period between election day and the beginning of new legislative sessions; now therefore

BE IT RESOLVED that we, the citizens, taxpayers and voters of Pennsylvania, ask our legislators to stand for true democracy and abolish the corrupt and un-democratic practice of lame-duck sessions.

Who knows? If enough of us send our legislators and the governor this message, they may just do what’s right for democracy. And if they don’t, we’ll have the chance to do what’s right with them in 2006.

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Timothy Potts, former press secretary and director of communications for the state House Democratic Caucus; Matthew Brouillette, president of the Commonwealth Foundation; Lou Anne Caligiuri, executive director of Good Schools Pennsylvania; Kathleen Daugherty, executive director of Lutheran Advocacy Ministries of Pennsylvania; Bonita Hoke, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania; Barry Kaufmann, executive director of Common Cause/Pennsylvania, and Sandra Strauss, director of public advocacy for the Pennsylvania Council of Churches.