The fallout from the scandal around upstate Pennsylvania U.S. Rep. Tom Marino and his legislation — greased by significant campaign contributions — that made it harder for the government to crack down on opioid distributors, even as the nation reels from an overdose crisis, has now deep-sixed Marino’s nomination to become the Trump administration drug czar.
But there’s a bigger unanswered question from the Marino mess — a question for Pennsylvania and its political leaders.
Marino’s reprehensible 2016 actions — exposed last week in some remarkable investigative reporting by the Washington Post and CBS’s 60 Minutes — are almost a comic-book rendering of why Americans give Congress an 11 percent approval rating. Last spring, as opioid-related deaths were skyrocketing across Pennsylvania and the rest of the nation, Marino drafted and then won approval for a bill that actually took away the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s best tool for going after dodgy drug shipments.
At the same time, the Pennsylvania Republican was also raising $100,000 in political donations from drug-industry political action committees that supported his bill. Not only did Marino refuse to explain his actions to the news outlets, but when a CBS News camera crew showed up at his office, the congressman called the Capitol Police to kick out our allegedly free press. Meanwhile, the opioid epidemic grew worse in the northeastern Pennsylvania communities that Marino was ostensibly elected to serve; this July, a tainted batch of heroin caused 51 overdoses in just two days.
So that’s the end of Marino’s congressional career in Pennsylvania’s 10th District, right? Probably not. After a Democrat named Chris Carney stunned the political establishment by winning the rural, conservative-leaning seat during the party’s national landslide in 2006, the Republicans who controlled Harrisburg after the 2010 census redrew the lines of the 10th to make it almost impossible for a GOP candidate to lose. President Trump won the odd-shaped district — which a local writer compared to “a handgun which has had its barrel bent down in cartoon-like impotence” — with 66 percent of the vote, and even when it was assumed earlier this year that Marino would be leaving to work for Trump, Democrats struggled to come up with a strong candidate.
But the bigger question raised — yet again — by the Marino scandal is this: Why are Pennsylvania’s congressmen becoming a national joke? Marino’s actions may be outrageous, but he’s not exactly an outlier in this Keystone State of political despair. It was just the other day that a GOP congressman from Western Pennsylvania — Rep. Tim Murphy — announced his resignation when it was revealed that he’d asked his mistress to get an abortion (it turned out she wasn’t pregnant) at the same time he was pushing legislation to make it harder for all women to get one. In the wake of that disclosure, Murphy’s current and former aides came forward to document a long history of abuse that had been swept under the rug while he was elected again and again in his heavily Republican district.
The Democrats are no better. Surely you remember the former longtime Philadelphia Rep. Chaka Fattah, who today rots in a prison cell after committing various felonies representing his “safe Democratic seat” in which he sometimes ran unopposed. Meanwhile, in the Philadelphia congressional district next door, Rep. Bob Brady — also the city Democratic boss — is trying without a lot of success to explain a mysterious $90,000 payment to a judge and would-be opponent who dropped out of a race against him and has now pleaded guilty to a felony.
How do these assorted hacks and neer-do-wells keep getting reelected every two years? While pols of dubious character aren’t a new phenomenon, unfortunately, the rise of the Computer Age has given enormous agency to the art of gerrymandering, the ability to map congressional and state legislative districts on a block-to-block basis. This creates bizarre districts that resemble butterflies or snakes in a Rorschach test, in order to protect incumbents by carving out pesky voters from the opposition party. Studies have shown that Pennsylvania — aided by the 2010 election that gave the GOP one-party control over drawing the current map — is one of the most heavily gerrymandered states in America. And in Congress, the result is an 18-member delegation that looks nothing like Pennsylvania.
Did you notice that earlier in this piece I mentioned the state’s “congressmen” and not the usual “members of Congress”? You can still use that archaic and normally sexist term here, since all 18 Pennsylvania reps are men, even though the last time I walked down the street, it seemed as if half the people around these parts are (gasp!) women. Among those 18 dudes, just one — Fattah’s successor, Rep. Dwight Evans — is nonwhite, making the Pennsylvania delegation 94.5 percent white in a state that, according to census data, is only about 79 percent Caucasian.
That’s bad, but there’s also this: The delegation doesn’t accurately reflect the political views of Pennsylvanians. After the 2016 election, an in-depth analysis by the Associated Press found that — based on voter preference — the state’s delegation should have 10 Republicans and eight Democrats; instead, it’s 13-5 GOP. The Seventh District, where I live, used to correspond closely with the borders of Delaware County, which has been trending Democratic and voted, narrowly, for Hillary Clinton in 2016. The Seventh was redrawn in a bizarre flapping butterfly shape to pull in more Republicans and protect Rep. Pat Meehan, who since January has voted with Trump 87.5 percent of the time.
Carol Kuniholm, an election-reform advocate with the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters who last year cofounded the group Fair Districts PA that seeks to radically reform redistricting, noted that with incumbents so hard to knock off, about half of legislative candidates in the state aren’t even opposed on the general-election ballot. With “a lot of things that need to be fixed in Pennsylvania,” Kuniholm called gerrymandering and the lack of choices on Election Day “the most important and the most timely.” She noted that in Harrisburg — where incumbency protection has also rendered lawmakers stale and out of touch — the legislature won’t even take up commonsense bills widely supported by the vast majority of Pennsylvanians, such as bills aimed at preventing childhood exposure to lead poisoning.
“Gerrymandering isn’t a silver bullet but a huge part of what keep dysfunction in place,” Kuniholm said. Meanwhile, another victim of that dysfunction? The proposed constitutional amendment that would take redistricting out of the hands of self-interested pols and give that power to the people. The plan supported by Fair Districts PA, for an independent, nonpartisan, and transparent Citizens Redistricting Commission, has bipartisan support — with 96 cosponsors among 203 House members — and is generally backed by the Wolf administration, but has struggled to get a committee hearing. (Worth noting: The relevant committee chair in the House is State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, the tea party fanatic noted for his jihadi-style blasts at gays, immigrants, unions, etc. — a huge beneficiary of incumbent protection.)
There’s still time to fix Pennsylvania’s mapping mess before the 2020 census — but not that much time, given the cumbersome process for amending the commonwealth’s constitution. Meanwhile, the flip side of legislative dysfunction is that the handful of decent folks who’ve managed to gain office are now getting fed up — people like Pennsylvania GOP U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, who emerged briefly as a principled critic of the dangers of Trumpism before deciding to retire next year with a blast at the “increased polarization and ideological rigidity that leads to dysfunction, disorder, and chaos.” It turns out that a moral compass doesn’t get you anywhere when you have a broken map.