Advice for Tom Wolf on dealing with the Legislature during the pandemic … from Tom Wolf | Opinion

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at a Middletown child care center Tuesday, August 25 to roll out his fall agenda, including legal weed. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

By Benjamin Pontz

Coronavirus cases in Pennsylvania are skyrocketing. A budget deadline is looming. And yet the Commonwealth’s Democratic governor and GOP-led Legislature don’t really seem to be displaying a (public) sense of urgency in hammering out deals.

In fact, the general pattern of executive-legislative relations over the last nine months — whether in failed talks to allow mail-in vote-counting to start before Election Day earlier this fall or in efforts to reopen the Commonwealth during the spring — has involved a series of dueling press releases and few direct negotiations.

Indeed, at a press conference earlier this fall, a reporter asked Wolf about his fraught relationship with the Legislature. Wolf mostly deflected the question, saying he appreciates that his party and theirs have differing views.

But he also said, “I’ve been in politics for what, five-and-a-half years, so what do I know? But I guess that’s what happens.”

Since his first gubernatorial campaign in 2014, Wolf has sought to make a virtue out of being a political neophyte, projecting an earnest-yet-exasperated persona that “politics” gets in the way of making people’s lives better.

But beneath that ‘aw shucks’ grandfatherly veneer of a Jeep-driving cabinetmaker is an erudite political scientist whose 1981 dissertation won the American Political Science Association’s award for best thesis on American politics.

It is a 603-page tome on the evolution of the U.S. House of Representatives between 1878 and 1921.

During a recent 14-day self-quarantine, I read it.

It is an incisive analysis of the societal realities that shaped the turn-of-the-century Congress that evinces an astute understanding of how political incentives shape legislative behavior.

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In it, Wolf argues that the external environment thrust upon legislators by their constituents and the broader political dynamics of a time period shape how they structure the government institutions to do their jobs.

In the mid-1890s, for example, an ideologically-unified Republican party that wanted to pursue an affirmative issue agenda consolidated power in the office of the House Speaker to create a “legislative steamroller” that prevented an insurgent minority from obstructing their political goals.

As electoral incentives changed, however, that same Republican party — in cooperation with some frustrated Democrats — capitalized on declining public attachments to national political parties and their increased sense of electoral security to wrest power from a recalcitrant Speaker and give individual members more control of the daily agenda to propose legislative pet projects.

It’s all strikingly resonant to the legislative environment in Harrisburg that Wolf now confronts.

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Since April, Wolf has systematically thwarted many of the Legislature’s attempts to participate in pandemic management, vetoing bills only to issue remarkably similar executive orders, and projecting what can only be read as annoyance that legislators would have the audacity to push him on issues that clearly matter to their constituents, such as easing attendance restrictions at high school sporting events.

The governor has called the GOP’s efforts “grandstanding” and “irresponsible.”

And perhaps they are. But no one — least of all the congressional scholar serving as governor — should be surprised that a Legislature stripped of all meaningful opportunity to make policy would hurl invective, run to the courts, and hold rallies at the state Capitol complex to demonstrate to their constituents that they hear them.

With the election now behind us, Pennsylvania politics stands at an inflection point. For the fourth consecutive cycle, voters have sent to Harrisburg a Democratic governor and a Republican Legislature.

While that could set up gridlock, it could also create an opening for a governor who will not face another election cycle to work with newly-elected caucus leaders and forge a partnership moving forward.

Wolf recently tweeted that now is a time for unity in the fight against COVID-19. As governor, he has the opportunity to an extend an olive branch towards that end. Like it or not, any effort towards unity is going to require Republican buy-in, and Republicans won’t buy in unless they feel they will have some power in the situation.

As the governor wrote in 1981, politicians react differently when their incentives change, and the governor has the opportunity to change Republicans’ incentives by inviting them to the table.

Last May, Wolf vetoed Senate Bill 327, a bill that proposed creating an inter-branch task force composed of legislative leaders, the chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the governor, and advisors from Commonwealth agencies to help shape the Commonwealth’s response.

At the time, Wolf objected to the concept, perhaps with good reason. In those early days of the pandemic, time was clearly of the essence, and more unilateral executive leadership made prudent sense, and Republicans would have outnumbered Democrats on the proposed task force.

Nine long months later, the argument that there is no time to regularly convene a group of legislative leaders for meaningful deliberation and consultation strains credulity. Indeed, it appears that the governor is arguing not that these issues are too time-sensitive to allow for consultation, but rather too important. It is time to reconsider that approach.

To date, the governor has largely been successful in the courts. But nationwide — including in the Western District of Pennsylvania — jurists have begun questioning the drawn out use of extraordinary executive power to resolve so-called “temporal” emergencies that linger for three-quarters of a year.

Deliberative, bipartisan, cross-institutional consultation has clear political upsides for Wolf. He would be wise to get ahead of the issue, convening an advisory group of legislators from both parties, before a court forces him to lose whatever leverage he currently enjoys.

There is nothing inherently good about task forces. They often can be a facade to convey the appearance of action while providing political cover for continued intransigence.

Whether Republicans will make good on their promises to work in good faith with the governor remains to be seen.

But, for a governor who took office on a promise to transcend the tired tropes of partisan politics — not to mention someone so well read on the incentives created by electoral politics in a democracy — it seems he ought to get caught trying as he enters the last two years of the last job he will ever hold.

As Wolf wrote in 1981, people lost faith in government when they did not see themselves represented in it.

Consultation could have discrete benefits, even if it bears no actual fruit. Constituents who feel voiceless in Harrisburg would see their representatives engaging with the governor calling the shots.

As Wolf wrote in 1981, people lost faith in government when they did not see themselves represented in it. The recent election results seem to indicate that many Pennsylvanians do not see themselves represented in how he has handled the pandemic.

Moreover, legislators would have the opportunity to hear directly from the governor—rather than through the media—how he views the challenges facing the Commonwealth.

And, perhaps most importantly for Wolf, it would undermine Republicans’ chief argument, that he is a distant, aloof technocrat whose contempt for “ordinary Pennsylvanians” desperate for some measure of normalcy prevents him from even sitting down with their representatives to the point that he cannot remember the last time he talked to them.

Maybe Wolf will even find an honest interlocutor. State House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, is no Mitch McConnell.

Just last year, he and Wolf collaborated to create a state health insurance exchange. It seems time for the governor to stop letting the GOP off the hook from bearing any actual responsibility in Pennsylvania’s recovery from COVID-19 by taking them up on their offer to be a governing partner.

Wolf benefits either way by calling their bluff—if that is what it turns out to be—or gaining new partners in his obviously genuine desire to contain the spread of COVID-19. In a worst-case scenario if the task force fails to bear fruit, Wolf can fall back on the emergency powers he has wielded so zealously since March and expose what he sees as their posturing while undermining their argument that he won’t listen.

Much of Wolf’s dissertation is a bit of a downer, but if there is one point that offers some encouragement, it is that how government institutions work is not immutable.

In other words, politicians can change “what happens” to better accommodate the demands of their constituents.

In this moment, when trust in institutions is near historic lows, perhaps an eminent political scientist who just happens to be a Jeep-driving cabinetmaker could come to the rescue and bend the contours of conflict towards his political, not to mention practical, advantage by helping more Pennsylvanians feel represented at the table where decisions are being made.

Who knows — doing so may well have the added benefit of helping to create, in the words of his 2015 inaugural address, a “government that works.”

Benjamin Pontz is a Fulbright Postgraduate Scholar studying governance and public policy at the University of Manchester. A Lancaster native, he previously reported on state and local government for WITF-FM and PA Post.