Voters are cynical? The Pa. House didn’t help this week | Thursday Morning Coffee

Voters don’t appear to be clamoring for expanded gun rights or attacks on the rights of the accused. But that didn’t prove an impediment for the General Assembly this week

November 18, 2021 7:27 am

The Pennsylvania House (Capital-Star photo).

Good Thursday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

If you can say one good thing about the harried three days’ worth of voting sessions that the Republican-controlled House wrapped up on Wednesday, it’s that it’s over.

After nearly three straight days of backbreaking work, the 203-member chamber has now recessed for its Thanksgiving break. And, along with the Republican-controlled state Senate which wasn’t even in session this week, lawmakers will not return to Harrisburg until Dec. 13, where (unless something changes) they will labor in the vineyards of public policy for another three, whole days before packing it in for the year.

But rest easy. While lawmakers were in session this week, they cannily tracked any number of solutions in search of problems to their lairs, pounced upon them, and produced a legislative product that, in at least one notable instance, is destined for a swift death at the hands of Gov. Tom Wolf’s veto pen.

So why go through this exercise? Why, partisan politics, of course.

Majority Republicans admitted as much when the sharply divided House pushed through a previously approved Senate bill on Tuesday night allowing any state resident, aged 18 or older, to carry a concealed weapon. That’s the bill Wolf has vowed to veto when it reaches his desk.

As the Capital-Star’s Stephen Caruso reports, GOP lawmakers engaged in this exercise in political theater on the belief that a veto will help motivate their base ahead of the critical 2022 midterms, where they’ll be vying to flip the governor’s office. Wolf will leave office in January 2023, after serving the constitutional maximum of two, four-year terms.

As an added bonus, Tuesday’s 107-92 vote, which came after more than three-and-a-half hours of debate, also will help gun rights advocates flush out any weak-kneed Republicans who are wobbly on the issue, Caruso reported.

But an actual public policy good? Well, apart from a more heavily armed populace, and your constitutionally protected right not to shiver when you go outside, that’s entirely unclear.

“This is not about who can lawfully possess a firearm,” House Judiciary Committee Chairperson Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, said during floor debate. “This is about when you have a gun on your hip in a holster, and it’s cold outside, you can put a coat on, and walk outside and not be breaking the law.”

Black Lives Matter protesters match down Harrisburg’s Front Street in response to the death of George Floyd, May 30, 2020. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Also on Tuesday, the House rammed through, with surprising speed, a bill that would treat nonprofits that free people from pre-trial detention the same as for-profit companies that do the same work.

Advocates say the bill sponsored by state Rep. Kate Klunk, R-York, which was introduced on Nov. 3 without the standard, co-sponsorship memo, and sped through committee to the floor, is just meant to level the playing field, Caruso also reported.

But the backers of these nonprofits, known as bail funds, which gained public prominence during the civil rights and police reform protests last year, argue that the bill is little more than an effort to shut down a concentrated community effort to challenge mass incarceration, Caruso reported. There are eight such funds across the state.

In a memo to lawmakers opposing the bill, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania warned that it would “[double] down on an archaic system and would reinforce the practice of tethering occupational licenses to criminal records.”

Klunk told Caruso this week that the bill was needed to close loopholes in the state’s bail laws.

So who’s right? Given the unusual speed with which this bill was moved through the usual glacial legislative process — just two weeks from introduction to a vote — I am inclined to believe the ACLU. But we won’t know, because it was rushed through with scant public notice or comment.

The bill is now before the state Senate, where the public will get a second crack at it. Hopefully, there will be more opportunity for discussion.

Rep. Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, speaks at a press conference for a bill to automatically expunge the records of acquitted individuals. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

During a riveting speech at the close of session on Wednesday, House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, got to the heart of what’s ailing the Legislature. She was specifically talking about the House, but her indictment can be more broadly applied.

She accused Republicans of putting “political victories” ahead of the public good, and of engaging in parliamentary gymnastics that routinely kill amendments backed by Democrats – as was the case with that concealed-carry bill. These tactics, she warned, eroded the entire House as an institution.

“How troubling is it that a spokesman for the majority leader would boast that not a single bill of the minority party has been enacted into law?” she asked.

McClinton contrasted the GOP’s tactics to Democrats’ own time in the majority in the early ‘Aughts, when the narrowly divided chamber “elected a Republican speaker,” in former Rep. Dennis O’Brien, of Philadelphia, and created a reform commission charged with cleaning up a legislative process the enabled the 2005 government pay raises.

McClinton left out the fact that O’Brien, a decent guy, was a compromise candidate because one Democratic lawmaker, Rep. Tom Caltagirone, of Berks County, had threatened to re-elect then GOP Speaker John M. Perzel, of Philadelphia.

The deal also resulted in a plucky young Democratic lawmaker named Josh Shapiro being elevated to the mostly ceremonial position of “Deputy Speaker” — a job that no one’s had since. And when Democrats reinforced their narrow majority a few years later, the leadership team of Speaker Keith McCallMajority Leader Todd Eachus, and Appropriations Committee Chairperson Dwight Evans, also was not above its own parliamentary contortions.

But McClinton’s underlying argument about the chamber’s steady slide into partisanship and performative politics isn’t wrong: Just take a look at the flood of press releases, endless news conferences where very little actual news is conveyed, and empty votes on bridge and road renamings (a bipartisan problem) that also have diluted the legislative process. A fundraising culture that routinely veers into the extortionate doesn’t help.

“We are mere caretakers of this House of Representatives. We have an obligation to pass this institution on to the next generation in a better condition than we received it,” McClinton persuasively argued. “But if we continue down this path, we won’t have an institution to pass on. We will have nothing more than a tyranny of the majority. Let us return to civility.”

As the majority, Republicans set the tone — and they can do way, way better. A calendar packed with fewer pieces of cynical veto bait that trample on the rights of the most vulnerable among us is a good place to start. Democrats can do their part by backing off the theatre.

That way, maybe we can actually miss all of them when they’re gone.

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
As a landmark school funding trial went into its second week, advocates called on lawmakers to pass fair funding — or find another job if they can’tMarley Parish reports.

U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-1st Districtdefended his vote on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that’s left him, and 12 of his GOP colleagues who voted for it, facing death threats from without, and threats of political retribution from his fellow Republicans within, our partners at City & State Pa. report.

At a Washington D.C. rally, parents and GOP lawmakers vowed a nationwide push to get critical race theory out of public school classrooms (where it isn’t being taught in any event). Capital-Star Washington Reporter Ariana Figueroa has the details.

The Black Clergy of Philadelphia isn’t satisfied with the city’s progress on rebuilding recreation centers, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune report.

Pennsylvania’s newest lawmaker, Rep. Thom Welby, D-Lackawannatook the oath of office on Wednesday, I report.

A federal judge has sided with GOP-controlled states that challenged the limits on tax cuts in the pandemic relief lawCapital-Star Washington Reporter Laura Olson writes.

On our Commentary Page this morning, opinion regular Lloyd E. Sheaffer looks back on 2021, our year of irony and tragedy. And a USC-Annenberg expert argues that the broadband expansion in the infrastructure law is just as vital as improvements to public water systems and the electrical grid.

Pa. State Police SUV (Pa. State Police Facebook Page)

Videos show that a Pennsylvania teen had his hands up when he was shot and killed by the Pennsylvania State Police in 2020, the Inquirer reports.

Pennsylvania’s roads are the 39th worst in the nation, the Post-Gazette reports, citing a new study.

Contamination in the Susquehanna River is getting worse — Harrisburg’s sewer system is being pointed to as the culpritPennLive reports.

State House Republicans have threatened to remove Lehigh County’s elections board if it doesn’t stop its practice of accepting undated ballots, the Morning Call reports.

The Times-Tribune has the latest on Scranton’s ongoing teachers’ strike – they’re getting close on salaries, but disagree on concessions, the Times-Tribune reports (paywall).

Public health officials in Philadelphia are concerned about a winter surge in COVID-19 cases, WHYY-FM reports.

State officials, lawmakers, and judges will get a big automatic pay raise in 2022 — a 5.6 percent hike, the Associated Press reports (via WITF-FM).

Waiting times are longer in most Erie-area hospital emergency rooms, GoErie reports.

Inflation is dragging down Democrats as they head into the 2022 campaign season, Roll Call reports.

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:


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What Goes On
10 a.m., 333 Market St., Harrisburg: Independent Regulatory Review Commission
What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition)
8:30 a.m.: Event for Sen. Joe Pittman
5:30 p.m.: Reception for Sen. Devlin Robinson
5:30 p.m.: Reception for Rep. Dan Frankel
5:30 p.m.: Reception for the Senate Republican Campaign Committee (U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-10th District, who tested positive for COVID-19 is billed as a special guest. One assumes that’s off, but you never can tell).
Ride the circuit, and give at the max, and you’re out an eye-watering $16,500.

Gov. Tom Wolf has no public schedule today.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept
Belated best wishes go out to Capital-Star opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan, who celebrated on Wednesday. Up to date best wishes go out to reader Brett Marcy, who celebrates today. Congratulations all around, friends.

Heavy Rotation
Here’s an old favorite from the late great Judybats, of Knoxville, Tenn. It’s ‘Daylight.’

Thursday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link
Washington blanked Los Angeles 2-0 during a late game on Wednesday night. After a scoreless two periods, the Caps’ Garnet Hathaway got both goals in the third period to seal the win.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.