Just when you think you see a chance for smoother sailing through Pennsylvania’s foggy version of democracy, along comes a cold reminder of power’s love of power.
One such reminder surfaced last week like an iceberg intent on sinking a multi-year effort to improve the process of electing the people’s representatives.
Few saw it coming. But those familiar with Harrisburg weren’t surprised.
It was a classic bait-and-switch.
The House State Government Committee, the state’s black hole for reasoned reform, was set to consider House Bill 722, creating an independent citizens’ commission to draw legislative and congressional districts. It’s a measure key to work begun in January 2016 by grassroots Fair Districts PA.
The simple premise? Voters should have greater say in selecting who serves them.
Ah, but that grabs power from politicians who now draw their own districts.
And even though the state Supreme Court, in our recent gerrymander case, ruled this power misused, the committee voted to not only keep it, but expand it.
(Remember, the court killed past maps, not the process that produced them.)
The House committee gutted the citizens’ bill – which has more than 100 co-sponsors; enough to pass the House – and replaced it with a new bill giving greater clout to the legislature and less to the other branches of government, and showing citizens the door.
In short, a partisan Republican power play, retaliation for the gerrymander ruling and a move that (in one fell swoop) thumbs its nose at citizen action, flips the bird to the state high court and pushes the governor out of the way.
Currently, legislative lines are drawn by a five-member commission, and congressional lines are established by legislation subject to gubernatorial veto.
Currently, the legislative commission is four legislative leaders (or their designees) and a fifth person – who can’t be a public official – to serve as chairman. If lawmakers can’t agree on a chairman, the Supreme Court appoints one.
But the new bill creates a six-member commission to draw legislative and congressional lines. It keeps the four legislative leaders but adds two more lawmakers picked by the GOP legislature.
No Supreme Court involvement. No veto by the governor. Citizen involvement? Uh, no.
The official reason?
Committee Chairman Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler) said, “There is no greater citizens’ commission than the General Assembly of this state.”
(This is a view from a parallel universe. In the real world, there is no greater citizens’ regret than the General Assembly of this state.)
The vote, of course, was party-line: 15-11. No Democrat supported the gut-and-replace. Every Republican voted for it.
That includes Chester County’s Stephen Barrar; Bucks County’s Craig Staats; Jefferson County’s Cris Dush (who wants to impeach Democratic Supreme Court justices); and Allegheny County’s Rick Saccone (loser in last month’s Western Pennsylvania special congressional election).
Carol Kuniholm, of Fair Districts, says her group has held more than 400 redistricting events touching more than 20,000 people; that 19 counties and 200 municipalities passed resolutions supporting citizen-commission legislation.
All pushed aside in one committee action.
David Thornburgh, of the Committee of Seventy, says the level of citizen interest and outrage over this issue, despite its complexities, is the highest he’s seen in Pennsylvania since the legislature voted itself big pay raises in 2005.
Neither Kuniholm nor Thornburgh is giving up.
Kuniholm’s group plans a Capitol rally for Monday afternoon. She says a Senate hearing is slated April 24 on Senate Bill 22, a mirror of the House bill, and that further legislative moves are under discussion.
Thornburgh says Metcalfe might be “kicking the hornets’ nest,” spurring further efforts to get more citizens involved in the process.
Pennsylvania elections should be more competitive, less controlled by incumbent politicians. New congressional maps created in the gerrymander case are a step toward fairer elections.
But the lasting solution to less partisan district drawing is a citizens’ commission. Not perfect. But better.
And needed because whichever party is in power is capable of overreach; and no party can be trusted to not make maps in its own interests.