Commentary

Confessions of a participation trophy liberal – and what it tells you about Pa. politics | Opinion

Compromise and bipartisanship is out the window in the Pa. General Assembly. We need a better dialogue

Trophies on a table on an athletic field

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By Patrick Beaty

Here’s something I learned through many years of experience in state government and as an advocate for redistricting reform. When a government employee calls you a participation trophy liberal, a loser and a cheater, all in one sophomoric rant, you know you must be onto something.

True, the comment was not directed at me personally, but the message was clear enough.

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania House Republican caucus was responding to a press conference at which a variety of government reform groups called for changes in legislative rules to allow for consideration of bills with bi-partisan support.

Asked to comment on the proposal, House GOP spokesperson Jason Gottesman chose instead to engage in name-calling of the type that has become all too familiar on social media. He told a reporter that the reform advocates were “participation trophy liberals” who “don’t like the fact that they have lost the game, so they are trying to cheat by changing the rules.”

There’s a lot to unpack there, but let’s start with this. When did it become okay for a government employee to give a statement like that as the official response of the House majority caucus? It feels like an invisible line has been crossed before we even knew it was there.

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The Pennsylvania legislature has a long sad history as a body resistant to change. To put it mildly. In fact, that is how legislative leaders always seemed to handle past reform efforts – mildly – with lukewarm assurances that were never realized.

Remember former Speaker Mike Turzai’s professed support for the gift ban? Or current Speaker Bryan Cutler’s assurance (when he was majority leader) that the Rules Committee which he chaired was open to considering additional rule changes? Nothing happened, of course, and eventually the legislative session came to an end without any significant reforms. Disappointing to be sure, but at least reformers weren’t vilified as losers. At least not as the official government response.

Even setting aside the appalling tone of disrespect for nonpartisan groups like the Committee of Seventy, League of Women Voters of PA, March on Harrisburg, Fair Districts PA, and others who participated in the press event, the quoted statement reveals quite a lot about what is wrong with politics and government today. And, while not intended, the statement actually served to reinforce the main point being made by the reformers.

Once upon a time, the party in power would occasionally reach across the aisle and collaborate with members of the minority party on issues that were popular with voters of both persuasions.

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Trust me, this actually happened. Seems almost quaint in retrospect. Those were also the days when lawmakers worked together in committee to study proposed legislation, hear from interested citizens and experts and then make necessary amendments before reporting bills to the floor for consideration by the full House or Senate.

Now it is much more common for bills to be voted out of committee without public input or opportunity for members of the minority party to offer amendments, but with the vague promise that any concerns could be addressed later.

The whole committee process is treated by the majority party as a nuisance they would gladly toss aside if it were not required by our state Constitution. Bills introduced by members of the minority party are very rarely considered regardless of merit.

It has been often said that politics is a “contact sport’’ or a “blood sport” (and also that “politics ain’t beanbag,” which is a kind of game, if not a sport). By the nature of our two-party system, American politics involves teams who win and lose. The winning team gets certain advantages. They get to set the agenda for as long as they remain in power and they get to control the flow (or lack thereof) of bills introduced by members of both teams.

We are now at a point where winning is everything. If you are not on the winning team, you are by definition a loser and so apparently are all those who voted for you or who hold similar beliefs. It is no longer considered off limits for an elected official to ask constituents how they are registered as voters and if they voted for that official in the last election.

But we have reached a whole different level of dysfunction and rancor when individual citizens and groups who challenge the status quo in the spirit of reform are castigated as cheaters who only want to change the rules because they “lost the game.”

We should not expect any “participation trophy” because we didn’t win. Well guess what? We’re not even playing your game. We are the people you are supposed to represent in government. All of us, not just the ones who voted for your team.

For the record, I have never been a fan of giving awards just for showing up. Call me old school (or just old). But I also am not offended if someone else wants to do that. It doesn’t make them losers. If you say that makes me a participation trophy liberal, then I will gladly confess to the charge.

Patrick Beaty is the volunteer legislative director of Fair Districts PA. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. 

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