Harrisburg on the Potomac

Posted: July 17, 2014

EVER NOTICE how Harrisburg often mirrors Washington?

Talk about two ugly images.

Not on the same issues, mind you, but on the same mind-set: Why do something when you can survive by continually doing nothing?

Washington refuses to act, for example, on immigration reform. Harrisburg refuses to act, for example, on pension reform.

And the key word here isn't the particular issue, each of which is called a "crisis" despite each being unattended for years. The key word is "reform," of which there's little in either capitol.

But beyond an obvious both-are-bums observation, consider this: They've maybe never been the mirror image they are right now.

Both executive branches face possible legislative litigation.

Both executives face depressing polling numbers.

Both executives are out on the road seeking support for their issues.

Both legislative bodies are widely reviled and ineffective.

Both legislative bodies are all-but-certain to remain unchanged after fall elections.

To the details.

There's an appetite in Washington to sue President Obama over separation of powers.

The claim is the president usurped congressional authority by issuing Obamacare compliance waivers to small businesses.

The White House says it wants business owners to have time to comply with provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The Republican House argues the law's the law.

There's talk in Harrisburg of suing Gov. Corbett over separation of powers.

The claim is the governor could be usurping legislative authority with his line-item veto of some legislative funding.

The Republican Senate says the veto strikes funds from the fiscal code, which directs rather than appropriates money, calling such action "unprecedented." The administration says Corbett's action is legal.

I'm betting law firms are lining up to take both sides, since law firms seem to be the sole winners in every government controversy.

Meanwhile, both Corbett and Obama are poll-challenged: A Franklin & Marshall College poll shows Obama's job-approval rating here at 34 percent; Corbett's is at an even worse 27 percent.

And both are out and about on their issues.

Corbett's traveling the state - Pittsburgh, Hazleton, Bloomsburg, Hershey - this week pushing pension reform.

Obama's running around the country calling for action on infrastructure.

Ever heard anything on these issues before?

How about others? Federal debt ceiling? Pennsylvania liquor reform? Federal Highway Trust Fund? Campaign-finance reform?

Anyone can make a list of nonactivity.

Which returns me to a theme I've suggested in past. We are ungovernable.

Unreformed politics, the power of special interests, the comfort of incumbents and toxic partisanship (or internal squabbles) all combine to produce gridlock.

Five years ago, I made this case to Jeffrey Stonecash, an expert and author on political parties, electoral behavior and state politics at Syracuse University.

At the time he said, "Political discourse throughout our history has been just as toxic but the American body politic has shown it carries the antibodies to survive."

We talked again this week.

"I think we've morphed into this notion that government should take care of everything. I've never thought there has to be this factory that encounters a problem, solves it and moves on to the next one . . . that's not what a democracy does. It debates."

(Academics, what can I say?)

Stonecash said "crisis" and "dysfunction" are overused and overhyped. He said all we have at all levels is a "basic dispute" about what government should be.

"The welfare state expanded enormously" in the last few decades, he said. Republicans argue it's out of control. Democrats argue inequality and lack of opportunity affecting too many must be addressed.

And when I asked how and when this "basic dispute" is resolved, Stonecash said, "It's going to take a while."

Yeah, in Washington and in Harrisburg, if ever, or until they both look in the mirror and don't like what they see.


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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