ROBERT SWIFT: Capitol Matters: The downfall of the legislators
HARRISBURG - Archival video footage by Roxbury News shows Pennsylvania's legislative leaders celebrating before their collective downfall.
The time was October 2006 during the centennial celebration of the dedication of the state Capitol. The 100th anniversary was marked with a daytime ceremony on the front steps of the Capitol and nighttime party throughout the building replete with fireworks.
The footage shows former House Speakers John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, and Bill DeWeese, D-Waynesburg, both now serving state prison sentences for public corruption, in a happier moment. Former Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer, R-Altoona, defeated for renomination just five months previously, has a grim look on his face in one shot.
A procession of lawmakers on the Capitol steps shows many faces now no longer in office due to the legislative pay raise controversy that erupted the year before.
Then-Attorney General Tom Corbett walks through a reception in the Rotunda virtually unnoticed by anyone else.
Within three months in January 2007, Mr. Corbett launched the long-running state investigation into legislative branch corruption spurred by revelations that caucus staffers were paid bonuses with public tax dollars for their campaign work during the 2006 election.
The rampant and illegal use of legislative staffers and resources for campaigning that became the focus of the broader Bonusgate investigation was in full swing that October day with the general election just a month away. Incumbents ran scared in 2006 with a record number of challengers due to the pay raise uproar and many went down to defeat.
The 2006 election was the culmination of a trend that had gathered momentum during the previous 25 years. With the decline in power of county political party chairs due to the dwindling of patronage jobs, legislative leaders filled the vacuum by building statewide and regional political machines.
Many like Mr. Jubelirer and Mr. DeWeese held leadership posts in Harrisburg for decades. They wielded great power over the lives of Pennsylvanians by virtue of the votes every two years of their caucus colleagues. Yet they were hardly household names outside their own districts.
The Roxbury footage gives a visual accompaniment to the release last week of the final two volumes of a study of Pennsylvania's General Assembly by Temple University's Institute for Public Affairs.
The first three volumes were released this spring as a parade of former legislative leaders and top aides entered state prison following convictions related to misuse of public money for campaign purposes.
A final volume presents viewpoints on issues involving the workings of the legislative branch that have been around for a long time: lobbyist regulation, campaign financing, ethics oversight, lawmaker compensation, term limits, voter referendums.
The study refers to the role of legislative leaders noting the Legislature would have difficulty functioning without them and they have to be responsive to their constituents, the caucus members.
It also describes how the leaders are engaged in a permanent campaign to be the majority caucus which means "lawmaking" and "electioneering" compete for time.
Thus, the caucuses are often engaged in a PR effort to portray the other party in an unfavorable light, the study adds.
"The constant conflict of the permanent campaign for the majority can be a strong deterrent to a deliberative lawmaking process and can contribute to the legislature's relatively low approval ratings on the part of the public," according to the study.
ROBERT SWIFT is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.