Wise as Serpents: Statesmanship Among Snakes in Pennsylvania

The legislature in Harrisburg offers a profound case study in what makes a principled leader effective.

Madison’s aphorism “If men were angels…” is as true today as it was in 1787, and “the great difficulty” of Federalist #51 is no less pressing, especially in Pennsylvania. Madison knew that virtuous politicians would be rare, therefore he wanted to lend them as much leverage as possible. Though many today are skeptical that integrity can succeed in the political arena, here are a few pointers from the Keystone State for effective yet principled politicking in a fallen world.

Vice in the Commonwealth

Though “Virtue” makes up a third of Pennsylvania’s motto, it is much less prevalent among the state’s elected servants. With full-time lawmakers collecting an annual salary of nearly $80k, the Commonwealth has the most expensive state legislature per capita in the country. Unsatisfied with this level of compensation, the Republican-controlled General Assembly in July 2005 passed pay increases for elected officials of 16% to 34%. In order to avoid public scrutiny, the vote was taken at 2AM. To add insult to injury, a provision was included in the clandestine bill allowing for raises to be realized immediately, something strictly forbidden by Pennsylvania’s constitution. Due to public outrage, the Assembly repealed the pay raise four months later.

Unfortunately this is but one instance of the gross hubris and corruption that usually consumes Pennsylvania politics. In another scandal, twelve Democratic house members have been indicted (and one member convicted) of paying legislative staffers with taxpayer dollars for campaign work. Suffice it to say that state politics in the Keystone State, whether Democratic or Republican, is deplorable.

This reality motivates the age-old question, how does one lead self-interested knaves to choose the common good? James Madison treated this question in (among other places) Federalist #51; his solution was to manipulate self-interest via the constitutional structure of the state. In answer to the same question, this essay gives personal tactics and strategies that are conducive to effective politicking within state government.

What’s a Political Philosopher to Do?

Although 95% of those in the legislature are seeking primarily (if not exclusively) their own gain, they can still be led. Does that percentage seem high? Not three days into his internship in Harrisburg, PA, this author heard one House candidate (a veteran staffer backed by his party’s leadership) claim, “Of course I’ll say I believe in transparency and all this other bullshit, which of course I really don’t. If I hold that seat for five years, I can retire with full eye and dental.”

Here are a few tips for leading such men.

One. Have a clear objective that is bigger than the next promotion. Note that you should strategically position yourself for leadership positions, but if power (and this includes reelection) is your most important objective you will soon lose credibility with your colleagues. At some point, leadership will entice you with power (i.e. a better office, another committee seat or chairmanship, or even a prettier secretary—no really). Lacking an organizing principle around which to order your political career, you will eventually cave, selling your vote on Friday and installing your new merchandise on Saturday for all the world to see on Monday. And that is precisely the problem. You have not only announced your prostitution, you have also advertised your price tag. And few take a commodity seriously.

Two. That being said, be powerful. Like a moth to a candle, knaves are drawn to power. Pennsylvania’s constitution requires budget approval by June 30. The 2009 budget was delayed until October. Why? Because the House minority whip is seen by his caucus colleagues as the big kid on the block, and he decided that the Governor’s profligate spending had to stop. He was able to persuade his caucus (remember those self-interested knaves, many of whom would directly benefited from a cushy spending bill) to vote in block against the budget. As a result, the Commonwealth spent $1.6 billion less in 2009-10 than the governor and the House majority originally proposed.

So, what does power look like? Apart from the obvious of having a leadership position, money is the short answer. The more you can raise, the more followers you will have within your caucus. In addition to money (though closely linked with it) is the ability to win elections. Take ownership of elections other than your own, especially challenger elections that unseat someone from the other side of the isle. Finally, have a big name degree; a J.D. from an Ivy League is pretty much as good as it gets.

Three. Personality, personality, personality. Be gracious and amiable. Develop relationships with other members; take an interest in how they are doing—really. Chairmen have been known to call immediate committee meetings in order to move a single bill forward, all at the request of a drinking buddy (who just happened to be a lobbyist). Also, make every effort to agree with other members. If you must disagree, do so by asking questions, not by making assertions, and do not hold grudges because of past votes. That includes against members of the media, most of whom (though registered Dems) are not out to get the conservatives. Take an interest in helping them do their jobs and you will probably be surprised by how they help you do yours.

Four. Be strategic about persuasion. Winning everyone to your position is unnecessary; focus on convincing one person out of every ten or so members. The ones you persuade will influence those around them. Also, know that many members are unsure of where to stand on several issues. If you can connect with them early (e.g. during their freshman year, or even better, by managing their initial campaign) and give them solid advice, they will continue to look to you for direction in the future.

Five. Only support something if it has merit and a moderate chance of success. One of the quickest ways to drain political capital (i.e. leverage) is by being friends with “losers.” If that sounds like something from third grade, well…get over it. Backing a losing bill or a losing candidate will probably cost you a leadership position during the next round of elections, and backing more than one certainly will. Even knaves, no…especially knaves want “winners” as their leaders. By way of example, assume your caucus leader has backed a fiscally lax candidate for appropriations chairman, think long and hard about supporting the other guy. The leader has all the handouts (remember those chairmanships, offices, and pretty secretaries). And what do you have to “persuade” other members? Nothing. Unless of course, you are the caucus leader.

And Don’t Shy Away From the Job

Unfortunately many who enter politics for noble reasons are less concerned with having influence and most concerned with keeping their hands clean or decrying the corruption of their colleagues. But being effective as a principled legislator requires strategic back-room deals, while finger pointing, especially at those within your own caucus, debilitates political influence. Those aspiring to enrich the culture as legislators should be innocent as doves while being wise as serpents, that means exploiting every available inch of leverage. Because, in the end, ineffective for Jesus is still ineffective.

1 Comment

  • […] Wise as Serpents: Statesmanship Among Snakes in Pennsylvania LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", "other"); LD_AddCustomAttr("LangId", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Autotag", "religion"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "religion"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "c-s-lewis"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "christianity"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "culture"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "labor"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "post"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Tag", "work"); LD_AddSlot("LD_ROS_300-WEB"); LD_GetBids(); Rate this: Share this:EmailFacebookTwitterPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]