Will They or Won't They?

September 12, 2013

G. Terry Madonna & Michael L.Young

Will they or won't they? That is the central question before Pennsylvania lawmakers as they return from their long summer break. Will the Republican-controlled legislature finally pass any of Governor Tom Corbett's highly touted first-term agenda?

In case you have forgotten what that agenda is -- and you could be pardoned for doing so since a considerable proportion of the legislature seems to have done just that -- Corbett's trifecta of “must-do legislation" includes roads and bridge funding, the privatization of the state's liquor stores, and pension reform for teachers and state employees.

Not surprisingly, asking what if anything this legislature will do this fall, is a question being raised across the state. This after all is a legislature no one will ever accuse of overexerting itself. So far, its one noteworthy achievement this session was passing a new state budget, something the constitution requires them to do.

Politics PA, one of the state’s leading online blogs, actually polled its savvy readers last month in a nonscientific poll asking which of Corbett’s big three agenda items had the best shot in the fall session. The poll results probably produced few hurrahs in the Corbett camp.

More than a third of responders thought none of Corbett's agenda would see the light of day (38 percent); about one in eight (13 percent) thought liquor privatization might happen; a paltry one in 12 thought (8 percent) thought pension reform had a chance; and slightly more than one in three (41 percent) saw transportation funding as having a chance of passing.

So, the smart money has spoken. The chances of anything happening in the fall legislative session are generally judged slim to none. Few expect the legislature to do very much this fall.

The causes are clear. The deep ideological and personal divisions that exist between House and Senate Republicans were in full view before the summer break. In addition, the growing polarization between Democrats and Republicans in the House loom ominously for those expecting the legislature to actually legislate a little.

But all may not be lost. Yes, the legislature may be paralyzed by internal divisions. It may be spectacularly indifferent to Corbett's fate and it may be willing to go down in history as one of the least productive legislatures in recent times.  All true.

But equally true is the reality that most legislators are not willing to lose their jobs. And that powerful counterforce may be enough to overcome the inertia and ideological infighting currently pervading the General Assembly.

The possibility that frustrated voters may rise up and demand legislative accountability can no longer be seen as a remote prospect. The most recent Franklin & Marshall College poll showed an anemic 11 percent of voters give a "positive" job performance to the state legislature, an appalling historic low. Put slightly differently, almost nine out of ten voters disapprove of the legislature’s performance.

Even closer to home for most incumbents, the same F&M poll showed that almost six out of ten voters (56 percent) said they would like to see most incumbents ousted in next year's election.

A grass-root revolt might seem a stretch in a state that at one time regularly returned incumbent lawmakers to office more that 95 percent of the time. But it cannot and
should not be ruled out in the present environment of historically low regard for politicians in general and the legislature in particular.

The electorate is in an ugly mood.

In consequence, the possibility of a "wave election," such as occurred in 2006 and 2010, which changed partisan control in the state House of Representatives, cannot be ruled out. Certainly, Republicans must now worry that Democrats in the Senate are now close enough to pick up the three seats that would give them majority control of that chamber for the first time in 20 years.

All of this makes aggressive action by the legislature on the Corbett agenda much more likely than it appears. Despite their brave rhetoric, confident airs, and endless arguments, Republicans know to a certainty that Tom Corbett is in deep trouble for re-election. Right now he looms as the most endangered gubernatorial incumbent in modern state history. Without some accomplishments to take to the voters in November 2014, he can't win.

Hence, the central dilemma a badly divided legislature faces; Corbett may still lose even if the legislature gives him some or all of what he is asking; he will certainly lose if they give him none of it. These are stark choices carrying profound consequences.

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Politically Uncorrected™ is published twice monthly, and previous columns can be viewed at http://politics.fandm.edu. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any institution or organization with which they are affiliated. This article may be used in whole or part only with appropriate attribution. Copyright © 2013 Terry Madonna and Michael Young.