Gov. Tom Wolf at his 2016 budget address. (Gov. Tom Wolf/Flickr.)
It can hardly be called an era of good feelings, but Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled legislature have been on reasonably good terms over the past year-and-a-half.
While Wolf’s relations with the Legislature in his first three years were characterized by historic delays and government shutdowns, the past two years have seen state budgets approved on time.
Compromise became fashionable. Wolf declined to propose broadly-based tax hikes, and Republicans signed off on budgets that increased spending on education and social services. Medical marijuana and first steps toward criminal justice reform and gun safety were launched.
To be sure, there remain issues on which the GOP strongly opposes Wolf and his Democratic allies, among them instituting a severance tax, banning abortions, and raising the minimum wage.
However, initiatives to combat opioid addiction and establish a state-run health insurance exchange were approved with minimal partisanship.
What accounts for this extended period of cooperation under divided party control of government? How long will it last?
In no particular order, a strong economy, the narrowing of GOP majorities in both houses of the legislature after the 2018 elections, Wolf’s impressive re-election victory, and a change in the governor’s tactics from going for the big play to grinding-it-out accounted for much of the cooperative behavior.
Events and trends also played a role. The alarming statistics surrounding opioid abuse and mass shootings in Squirrel Hill, Allentown, and Philadelphia galvanized efforts by officials of both parties.
State politicians and voters deserve credit, too. Pennsylvanians expect officials to be problem-solvers, not posturers, and most legislators come to Harrisburg to build records of achievement.
We should not be surprised that divided government can produce results. In his book Divided We Govern, 1946-2002, the Yale political scientist David Mayhew demonstrated that since World War II, split party control of government in Washington DC was just as productive as unified control.
Look at some of the major legislative achievements since the 1960s when Republican presidents had to work with Democratic Congresses: the Clean Air Act; Title IX; Americans with Disabilities Act; the Reagan tax cuts; resolutions to support the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War; No Child Left Behind; and the USA Patriot Act.
Welfare reform, deregulation of the financial industry, and deficit reduction occurred when Democratic Presidents Clinton and Obama co-existed with a Republican Congress.
This is not to say that divided government always produces good legislation or that vicious partisan fights do not occur. Depending on your point of view, the current regime of divided control in Washington thus far has been either mildly or spectacularly unproductive.
Still, few debates in the Pennsylvania legislature were more acrimonious than the one surrounding the elimination of the general assistance program in late June.
Nevertheless, Mayhew argues that legislative action under divided government continued through the Clinton, Bush II, and Obama years. In addition to events such as 9/11, changes in the public mood – reflected in the midterm electoral waves of 1994 and 2006 – required both parties to adjust to new political reality.
Furthermore, social movements that spanned periods of unified and divided government – civil rights and environmentalism in the 1960s and early 1970s, the conservative movement of the late 1970s and 1980s, and the Tea Party in the 2010s – were compelling forces.
If that is true, then we should expect more bipartisanship in Harrisburg as the #metoo and March for Our Lives/Moms Demand Action movements press for change.
But maybe not for long.
With the 2020 elections approaching, both Wolf and Republican leaders are teeing up issues to energize their respective bases.
For example, on school choice, the governor is campaigning for charter school reform, while GOP leaders push tax credits to support private and parochial schools.
As in Washington, we may well see increased use of executive orders. Wolf promised strong executive action to implement his charter school plan, and recently issued a directive to confront gun violence.
A big unknown is how leaders will respond to what is expected to be huge turnout for the 2020 presidential election.
The uncertainty created by an influx of new voters may make incumbent politicians hesitant to take risks, which could lead either to further bipartisan agreements or a retreat to party-line rhetoric.
With their majorities in jeopardy, particularly in the state Senate, Republicans have the most to lose. After 2020, with Wolf entering his final two years in office, inducements to cooperate will be removed.
In the meantime, enjoy the calm while we still can.
Capital-Star Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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