Members of the Pennsylvania House applaud newly elected Speaker Bryan Cutler on June 22, 2020. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)
Good Thursday Morning, Fellow Seekers.
There’s always been a performative aspect to our politics. If you’re an elected official who wants to keep your job, it’s often as important to be seen doing something about The Big Problems as it is to actually do something about them.
But over the last few years, the balance of power between the performative and practical in our politics has tipped away from a focus on measurable accomplishments to one that’s content to simply win the next news cycle, no matter what the cost.
The shift has been, it should be noted, more or less bipartisan. But, in all the ways that count, from propagating the myth of the stolen election to mask and pandemic denialism, Republicans have been the predominant practitioners of this reinvigorated, and destructively corrosive, theatricality.
You don’t have to look much further for confirmation of that than this week’s announcement by the majority-GOP state House that it will cut its summer vacation short to return to Harrisburg to try to undo the Wolf administration’s statewide mask mandate for K-12 students and children in childcare centers.
As empty gestures go, next week’s return is right up there.
Assuming the House can find a way to circumvent the state Health Department’s regulatory authority on this issue (the agency apparently has the law on its side), the bill still must clear the state Senate. From there, it faces a guaranteed veto by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. And Wolf has yet to have a veto overridden in his six years in the top spot.
As the Capital-Star’s Stephen Caruso reported, polling shows broad public support for mask mandates. During a news conference in western Pennsylvania on Thursday, a UPMC physician underlined their importance as a public health tool.
“Dr. John Williams, at a news conference going on right now, says the health care giant supports universal masking in schools. ‘Unvaccinated teenagers are hospitalized 10 times higher than vaccinated teenagers,'” Pete Sirianni, the managing editor of the local New Castle News, tweeted.
And of the 450 new cases of COVID-19 that Allegheny County charted on Wednesday; 99 were among children aged 18 and under, the Post-Gazette reported.
But the House is coming back anyway. Because this one is all about satisfying the base.
Speaking of which, a Republican-controlled Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committe will kick off the first of what is expected to be a series of hearings today on alleged “irregularities” in the 2020 election results.
The panel’s chairman, Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, has invited the public to submit examples of alleged fraud in an election in which it’s been well established that there was nearly nonexistent fraud.
The Senate’s performative gesture seems intended for an audience of one — an aggrieved ex-president living in exile. And it will only further undermine the public’s faith in our elections — an end that seems baked into this farcical process.
Both the hearing and the House’s return will come at enormous cost to Pennsylvania’s taxpayers, who will be picking up the check for lawmakers’ time and expenses as they go down this surreal rabbit hole.
What’s even worse — if that’s possible — is the sheer amount of real, and pressing, public business that’s being left on the table as lawmakers engage in these empty gestures.
A few examples:
In early August, as Pennsylvania’s opioid disaster declaration was about to blink out of existence, Wolf asked the General Assembly to return to Harrisburg early to extend it.
As the Capital-Star’s Marley Parish reported at the time, lawmakers declined, even though overdose deaths are at a three-year high, and the overdose epidemic within the COVID-19 pandemic, has exacted a tragic toll.
Their argument? The declaration wasn’t necessary, and lawmakers could deal with the issue upon their return to session later this month.
But preliminary numbers for 2020 show Pennsylvania reported the most overdose deaths — 4,715 — in a single year since Wolf issued his first declaration in 2018, Parish reported.
That’s a 14 percent increase from the year before. Forty-six out of 66 counties in Pennsylvania saw a rise in cases, and officials anticipate more as numbers become final.
The COVID-19 pandemic, with its subsequent statewide shutdowns, isolation, and limited in-person access to treatment, caused opioid deaths to rise nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But they’re not coming back to fix that.
The Senate adjourned in June without acting on a pair of critical bills: One would have granted survivors of childhood sexual abuse an extended window to sue in civil court.
“After the state failed to get a look-back window legislation on the ballot earlier this year, it is appalling that Gov. Tom Wolf and state legislators continue to be silent on this issue and therefore, are denying justice for child sex abuse survivors across the commonwealth,” Kathryn Robb, the executive director of CHILD USAdvocacy, raged in a statement at the time.
“It is beyond time for our elected representatives to stand firm and keep their promise to thousands of constituents and provide a window of justice for abuse victims and protections for Pennsylvanian children. Be warned, your silence is deafening and survivors and advocates across the commonwealth will not forget your [cowardice] come election season,” Robb continued.
Compounding this injustice, some of the oldest abuse survivors are now going to their graves without ever having their shot at justice, the York Daily Record reported Wednesday.
And, you guessed it, the Senate’s not coming back to fix that.
The other stalled Senate bill would have made cocktails-to-go, a pandemic lifeline for bar and restaurant owners that was beloved by patrons, the law of the land in the commonwealth.
“These drinks were an added revenue source for everyone, and now the stuff is just sitting there,” Thomas Tell, a Lackawanna County bar owner who’d stocked up on sealable containers and drink carriers in expectation of a busy summer, told the Capital-Star. “What good is it for me now? Do I call a milk farmer and say, ‘You need any half-gallon bottles?’”
And .. nope, they’re not coming back early for that one either.
In a caustic Twitter thread, Democratic operative J.J. Abbott, also a former Wolf administration aide, noted some of the other issues the GOP-controlled Legislature was leaving untouched.
“Returning early to use [American] Rescue Plan billions to help people and small biz? No. Returning early to address climate change and disaster recovery after deadly storms? Nope,” he wrote. “Returning early to keep families in their homes? No way. Returning early to fight about masks? You bet.”
As I noted above, there’s always been a performative aspect to our politics that Cicero would have recognized, and most likely, appreciated.
But with the events of today, and the coming weeks, the Pennsylvania Legislature has crossed a dangerous line, trading public safety and faith in our elections in short-term political gain.
Voters will need to remember that. And act accordingly.
Pittsburgh Public School District Superintendent Anthony Hamlet will resign from his position on Oct. 1, our partners at Pittsburgh City Paper report.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers in several states, including Pennsylvania, are pushing back against sham election investigations, our friends at the Pew Charitable Trusts report.
Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 hospitalizations arced upward again on Wednesday, with more people in intensive care units, and more requiring a ventilator to survive, new state Department of Health data shows.
On our Commentary Page this morning, Philadelphia Tribune columnist Michael Coard has the recipe for success for Black-owned businesses. And opinion regular Ray E. Landis says saving Social Security and Medicare means we need a fairer, more robust payroll tax system.
The Inquirer runs down a new report detailing voting in Pennsylvania’s jails.
Allegheny County charted 450 new cases of COVID-19 reported on Wednesday; 99 were among children aged 18 and under, the Post-Gazette reports.
After losing the May primary, Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse is set to wage a write-in campaign, PennLive reports.
USA Today’s Pennsylvania Capital Bureau takes a look at the statewide shortage of school bus drivers (via the Morning Call).
Officials in Bethlehem are weighing a vaccine mandate for public employees, LehighValleyLive reports (paywall).
A school board meeting in York County ended in ‘anti-masking mayhem,’ the York Daily Record reports (paywall).
The lessons of devastating flooding in Luzerne County in 2011 are still paying dividends today, the Citizens’ Voice reports (paywall).
In a visit to Norristown on Wednesday, Gov. Tom Wolf pleaded the case for his statewide mask mandate, WHYY-FM reports.
Healthcare giant UPMC is seeking Pennsylvanians to participate in a monoclonal antibody study, WITF-FM reports.
City & State PA talks to GOP gubernatorial hopeful Lou Barletta.
More than half the nation’s toll roads are now cashless, and, as you might imagine, toll-dodging is becoming a bit of an issue. Stateline.org has the details.
Roll Call explains how Republicans will help boost Democratic turnout in 2022.
Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:
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What Goes On
9 a.m., State College, Pa: Pa. Commission on Crime & Delinquency
10 a.m., New Alexandria, Pa.: House Labor & Industry Committee
1 p.m., Hearing Room 1, North Office Building: Senate Intergovernmental Operations Committee.
What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition)
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald holds a 5:30 p.m. at the Omni William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh. Admission runs an utterly preposterous $1,000 to $10,000.
Gov. Tom Wolf has no public schedule today.
You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to regular reader, Celeste Trusty, most recently of FAMM, now with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman’s U.S. Senate campaign. Congrats and enjoy the day.
Here’s a straight-up burst of sunshine for your Thursday morning. It’s Poolside, with DRAMA, and ‘I Feel High.’
Thursday’s Gratuitous Soccer Link
Here’s one to argue about on your Zoom meeting today: FourFourTwo ranks the fifty best footballers in the world this season. And No. 1 may surprise you.
And now you’re up to date.
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