Politically Uncorrected: A House Divided

Bruised elephantMost attention in the bruising battle to adopt the recently enacted Pennsylvania budget focused on whether the state budget passed on time. It did.

But a story far more important than budget passage itself was largely missed in covering the late night, last- minute theatrics now de rigueur with state budgets. That story poignantly revealed to those watching the deep polarization that now exists within the Pennsylvania legislature.

Nothing illustrates these deep fissures more than the debate over Gov. Tom Corbett’s “big agenda” items: liquor privatization, transportation funding, and the state pension debt.

As widely reported, these three highly touted priorities failed to pass, shocking many observers who expected at least some would pass, since Corbett’s own Republicans hold majority control of both houses of the state legislature.

Even more shocking perhaps is why they did not pass: clearly Corbett’s priorities failed–not in spite of Republicans controlling the legislature–but rather because Republicans control the legislature.

Let’s be clear. State history teaches that one party control does not guarantee a ready-made consensus for a governor’s agenda. One needs go back no further than the last elected Republican governor to find an example. Gov. Tom Ridge, a popular and effective governor, enjoyed Republican control of the legislature during his entire eight year tenure. Yet he still failed to pass several of his priorities, including school choice and liquor privatization.

Ridge, however, never made school choice or liquor privatization a must win for his administration. Corbett by contrast did make passage of his priorities the central policy focus of his first term. Consequently, the failure to pass these items cannot be interpreted other than a failure for Gov. Corbett.

To be sure it was that. But much more important and much less well understood, it was also a defining moment for the state legislature.

The making of the legislative sausage is the quintessential “black box” in state politics. Few get to see how it gets made; fewer perhaps care. But understanding what happened and didn’t during those crucial end of June days probably matter more to state politics than the ultimate fate of Tom Corbett.

What happened can be summed up in a single word: “partisanship”– pervasive, prevalent, pernicious, partisanship–more intense than any in modern times. Partisanship also has polarized not only Republicans from Democrats, but likewise the state house from the state senate, ominously mirroring the same toxic partisanship so virulently widespread in the U.S. Congress.

The historical causes of Pennsylvania’s increasingly polarized politics are multiple, but three major events going back to the last decade are pivotal, notably:

·The legal and political fallout from the infamous legislative pay hike of 2005;

·Then Attorney General Tom Corbett’s bonus-gate prosecutions of lawmakers and legislative staffers;

·The huge GOP 2010 sweep in Pennsylvania, giving Republicans a political trifecta–the governorship plus large majorities in both houses of the legislature.

Party sweeps are not unique in state politics. But the conservatives arriving in Harrisburg as a result of the last three elections represented a very different type of politician than normally seen in Pennsylvania.

Unlike their earlier brethren they are much less practical and far less likely to compromise. They are much more rigidly ideological, eschew compromise as a matter of principle and have a limited view of the role of state government. These new conservatives now form an operational majority in the state house.

House Democrats also have changed. Republicans may have moved further to the right than Democrats to the left. But Democrats, too, have moved far from the center. Having lost much of their once formidable rural base, house Democrats increasingly are confined to urban constituencies. Consequently, they have become much more ideologically oriented, much more liberal and much less likely to compromise.

Conversely, the senate remains less ideological, less rigid and far more likely to bargain on key legislation. The sharp contrast between the two chambers was exposed dramatically during the recent budget battle. In the senate, three key pieces of budget legislation, the 2013 budget, a Medicaid expansion bill and transportation funding passed with considerable bipartisan support. In the house, by sharp contrast, two separate budget bills plus a liquor privatization bill passed without a single Democratic vote.

The implications of this growing polarization stretch far beyond the 2013 budget battle. Republicans in the house, legatees of Corbett’s 2010 conservative takeover, should have been his champions, insuring that he and his agenda would triumph. But instead, refusing to compromise, adapt or bargain, they have killed what they would create.

This in turn has further undercut Corbett’s credibility with voters providing Democrats abundant opportunities to charge Republicans with failure to govern and planting the seeds that may regain the governorship for Democrats in 2014 as well as one or both legislative chambers.

One of the oldest axioms in politics is that governing has a price as the party in power gradually wears out its welcome with voters. But the 2013 budget battle reminds us that there is also a price for not governing. State Republicans might soon learn how high that price can be.


Madonna is Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Young is a former Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Penn State University and Managing Partner of Michael Young Strategic Research. Madonna and Young encourage responses to the column and can be reached, respectively, at terry.madonna@fandm.edu and drmikelyoung@comcast.net.

16 Responses

  1. Some of our bright young Representatives that where going to change Harrisburg have forgotten the mandates that got them elected.A good example is Matt Tablet from the 75th. When he was campaigning he said that there where too many professional politicians. He said in two debates no Rep. should stay more than 3 terms. After an undistinguished run in the House, I am sure he will be running for a fourth term. He is a Gas guy so he will have lots of funding. Ask someone what he has done for Elk County lately. He is not the only one. The State needs term limits to get these lawmakers more focused.

  2. Jeremy:
    New Deal Democrats are great, as long as they ditch the racism. People seem to forget what FDR had to do to get the Southern Democrats on board. Blue Dogs? No thanks. Blue Dogs are complete frauds. They’re just GOP’ers who don’t want the stink attached to being called a GOPer.

  3. Professional politicians particularly the corporate Republicans took a whole year at great expense to the taxpayers of Pennsylvania to do nothing in a year. Term limits are the answer to this mess. 8 years limits for all lawmakers. Only then will they represent people rather than corporate lobbyists to insure their own re-election. Right now their own survival comes before the will of the people they represent.

  4. Madonna is once again an idiot. On pension reform, some republicans, including METCALFE, veered LEFT, not right to kill it! Metcalfe wanted to WATER DOWN the Senate version. So get your facts straight there, Mr. Madonna. On Liquor, it was Senate Republicans veering LEFT, not right, that killed it. A solid majority of Pennsylvanians felt the Turzai plan was perfectly reasonable, not crazy, and people like Costa were out of step.

    On transportation, some republicans are now considered right-wing crazies for not wanting the HIGHEST gas tax in the nation? It isn’t as if Corbett was asking to take us from a low gas tax to a middle of the road gas tax. He wanted us to go from one of the highest to by far the highest.
    I think Madonna exemplifies the very problem he attempts to describe, by carelessly misusing labels and not having a firm grasp of the facts.

  5. To a degree, I agree with Phil Perspective. I have been a champion for the argument stating Democrats need to bring back the rural, white voters. Bring back the Blue Dog Democrats, New Deal Democrats, etc.

  6. To the authors:
    As one of the vast majority of voters in PA who know very little of the machinery of our state government and how the sausage gets made, I would like to thank you for a very well written summary of the situation. I wonder how we will ever change that? National politics has so little effect on our daily lives yet that is all we hear about.

  7. As long as Tom Corbett is listening to the very expensive losers BrabenderCox, the Democrats will continue to have an edge in 2014 November.

  8. Madonna Young focus on Corbett’s failure but fail themselves to highlight his most important achievement promoting Marcellus Shale/Utica Shale natural gas job creating exploration and production.
    Increasing energy supply lowers cost of energy for both business and residential users raising the standard of living for everyone. EVERY Democrat opposed his initiatives and, for one reason or another, are insistent on imposing more taxes and more regulation.
    The “Impact Fee” (Act 13 of 2012) was, in reality, a Tax and even though Act 16 of 2012 Keystone Opportunity Zone for Shell Cracker and Act 87 of 2012 Tax Credit Subsidy for Shell Cracker were both Crony Capitalist policies Tom Corbett led and got it done. Look at the votes. In my view, they show Tom Corbett can produce when he wants to. The votes are inconsistent in some respects and I cannot explain that but they Ds oppose Marcellus Shale Utica Shale and hydraulic fracturing and Rs, and the Governor, in particular are for it. Happily, natural gas producers are willing to make campaign contributions to support the Governor’s leadership.

    Act 13 0f 2012 House Votes 101 -90-2 LVE-4NV http://www.legis.state.pa.us/CFDOCS/Legis/RC/Public/rc_view_action2.cfm?sess_yr=2011&sess_ind=0&rc_body=H&rc_nbr=1133
    Act 13 of 2012 Senate Vote 31 YEA 19 NAY which shows some cross over. Note Quisling Long Nyquist Republican Vance’s vote and Liberal Lisa Baker’s anti-job vote. Predictably uberLib Daylin Leach voted NAY http://www.legis.state.pa.us/CFDOCS/Legis/RC/Public/rc_view_action2.cfm?sess_yr=2011&sess_ind=0&rc_body=S&rc_nbr=513

    ACT 16 of 2012 House Vote Unanimous Vote for Keystone Opportunity Zone tax-exempt status for multi-billion dollar Shell Cracker 194 YEAS http://www.legis.state.pa.us/CFDOCS/Legis/RC/Public/rc_view_action2.cfm?sess_yr=2011&sess_ind=0&rc_body=H&rc_nbr=1112

    Senate Vote unanimous except for Senator Eichelberger who, apparently, thinks taxpayer funding of multi-billion dollar corporations is Crony Capitalism. http://www.legis.state.pa.us/CFDOCS/Legis/RC/Public/rc_view_action2.cfm?sess_yr=2011&sess_ind=0&rc_body=S&rc_nbr=512

    Act 85 of 2012 House Vote 140 YEA -56 NAY- 5 LVE http://www.legis.state.pa.us/CFDOCS/Legis/RC/Public/rc_view_action2.cfm?sess_yr=2011&sess_ind=0&rc_body=H&rc_nbr=1806
    Senate Vote 43 – 6 Folmer is a “NAY” and Eichelberger is a “YEA” for subsidy. I don’t understand that. http://www.legis.state.pa.us/CFDOCS/Legis/RC/Public/rc_view_action2.cfm?sess_yr=2011&sess_ind=0&rc_body=S&rc_nbr=765

  9. Quisling Union Republicans, like the Senator form Penn State, Jake Corman, and Deon-Union Bucks Co Republican Sen McIlhinney collaborated with Democrats to undercut the The Forgotten Taxpayer.

    The polarization is between The Forgotten Taxpayers of Pennsylvania and the Establishment Big Government Crony Capitalists Establishment Insiders in both Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Terry Madonna’s partisan analysis is superficial and misses the real dynamic.

  10. PLEASE–do not call the voucher giveaway of taxpayer dollars to “private” (can they still be private if they get tax money?) and mostly religious schools “school choice.” The only entities who have a choice are the schools–they decide who they’ll let in.
    And regarding “choice”–apparently the governor and both houses of the legislature agree on something—making it more and more difficult for women to exercise their constitutional right to a legal, safe, and accessible abortion.

  11. Both sides don’t do it.

    The reason Transportation failed in the house is because the 30 Metcalfe Crazies wouldn’t go for it. TurdsEye KNEW he would need Dem votes to pass it, and instead of throwing them a sop to get them on board, he had one of his lieutenants tell them they are “not getting paid to think” – direct quote of Mike Vereb. So you have a bunch of crazies, and a completely inept majority leader – both on the Right side. Don’t paint Dems with that Stupidity brush – Reps own it all.

  12. But Democrats, too, have moved far from the center. Having lost much of their once formidable rural base, house Democrats increasingly are confined to urban constituencies. Consequently, they have become much more ideologically oriented, much more liberal and much less likely to compromise.

    Proof? Just because you like to use the “both sides do it!!” nonsense doesn’t make it so.

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