Toomey, Rendell’s call for term limits won’t fix our politics. These two moves will | Thursday Morning Coffee

October 8, 2020 7:23 am

(Capital-Star photo collage).

Good Thursday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

So, we’re massive comic book fans. And there’s nothing we love more than a good crossover. Superman vs. Spiderman? Bring it. Crisis on Infinite Earths? We’re here for it. Secret Wars? Bet your boots. The more heroes, the more esoteric the crossover and bonkers the storyline, all the better.

We’ll buy the main series, the tie-in issues, and maybe even an action figure or two.

So when we heard that former Gov. Ed Rendell and retiring U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., were teaming up on a call for congressional term limits, our interest was piqued. Sure, Zero Hour, it ain’t. But, hey, we’ll roll with it.

In a decidedly non-comic booky op-Ed the Philadelphia Inquirer published Monday, Toomey and Rendell argue that imposing congressional term limits would free lawmakers to vote their conscience instead of worrying about their re-election.

“Our elected representatives seem afraid to do anything that would jeopardize their reelection,” they wrote. “Term limits allow them to operate without that pressure, secure in the knowledge that they are not risking the position that could be a lifetime career. They would be able to cast votes knowing that the risk they are taking would not jeopardize their entire future.”

It’s a lovely sentiment, but .. KA-POW … just like a comic book, it’s pure fantasy, especially if you’ve ever been around when legislative leaders and the executive branch put on the squeeze for big votes.

Don’t believe us?

Then we give you the example of former Transportation Secretary Barry “That’s a Nice Bridge You Got There, It’d Be A Shame If Anything Happened to It” Schoch, as he went around whipping legislative support for a multi-billion dollar transportation funding package under former GOP Gov. Tom Corbett.

In 2013, Schoch literally slapped weight limits on thousands of bridges statewide, stalling commercial traffic and potentially slowing emergency service vehicles, as he tried to force lawmakers’ hands on a deal, as we wrote at the time.

It took a while, but it worked. Lawmakers came around. And Corbett got his funding package. And Pennsylvania got the highest gas tax in the land.

So the idea that lawmakers, freed from the tedium of running for re-election would suddenly become (to borrow a DeWeese-ism) rock-ribbed public servants bent only on the highest good, is a lovely sentiment, but likely not achievable on this Earth.

Though Earth-2 is not entirely out of the question.

The Pennsylvania House (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Term limits, in our experience, tend to be useful in executive positions, such as governor, or president. They generally prevent despotism, and lead to a fresh infusion of talent after eight (or so) years. In legislative bodies, however, when it takes a term or two to learn the issues and navigate the process, they tend to be less useful.

But, it’s undeniable that the symbolism is hugely attractive. So there’s an appeal when Rendell and Toomey posit that “term limits would infuse Congress with real-world experience, perspectives and sensibilities that are often missing. Term limits would replace the smirking class with the working class.”

True, everyone wants Mr. or Ms. Smith to go to Washington. But they rarely want him or her to come home without having followed through on some readily quantifiable deliverables.

We’re still of the opinion that elections tend to be the greatest curatives. Look no further than 2018, if you’re a progressive, as Democrats built their ranks in the state House and Senate; or 2010, if you’re a conservative, and the Tea Party wave of that year. Politics tends to be self-correcting. It takes a while. But the process tends to work.

Frustratingly — but unsurprisingly — the joint op-Ed is notably silent on what sort of term limits actually should be imposed, instead punting them to a constitutional convention, convened by state Legislatures.

Pennsylvania’s Legislature, at least, has been notoriously allergic to convening such a convention, lest it result in someone snapping their fingers, Thanos-style, and wiping out huge swaths of sitting legislative leadership and their prerogatives.

(Image via Flickr Commons)

If Toomey and Rendell were truly serious about fixing the process, they could muse about term limits for committee chairs (an actual good), but expend their significant clout on two things that would actually change the process: Campaign finance reform and redistricting reform.

We’ll take the former first.

Every day on this page, a little further down, we list the parade of fundraisers taking place across the Capital City and elsewhere in Pennsylvania.

Taken together, these events raise thousands of dollars every single day. And while they may not necessarily buy votes, they do (as we’ve written before) buy a kind of access and attention that is simply unattainable for the average voter. And that is arguably more precious a commodity.

Current state law imposes no restrictions whatsoever on how much individual candidates can raise or spend to pursue their re-election. Only direct corporate contributions are banned.

Rendell, in his two gubernatorial campaigns, raised tens of millions of dollars for himself.

As a high-profile Democratic fund-raiser, he has raised millions of dollars more for others. Simply amending current state law to impose hard limits on individual contributions, would go a long way toward restoring some sanity. But not entirely — the Citizens United decision allowed geysers of cash to flow into the process. While the U.S. Supreme Court can’t be overruled, there are still legislative remedies.

Blue – Democratic County in May 2015 and May 2020, Light Skyblue – Republican County in May 2015 and Democratic County in May 2020, Light Salmon – Democratic County in May 2015 and Republican County in May 2020, Red – Republican County in May 2015 and May 2020. (Map by Nick Field via Dave’s Redistricting)

Then there’s redistricting reform.

Changing the process to allow citizens to choose their representatives, rather than the other way around, would restore competitiveness and lead to a regular purging of legislative dead weight.

Republicans might not like it (and they don’t) but the state Supreme Court’s 2018 action tossing Pennsylvania’s old congressional map and replacing it with a court-ordered map that not only put districts in numerical order from east to west, but also corrected a decade of GOP gerrymandering, resulted in power-shift that turned a 13-5 GOP majority into a 9-9 split with districts that actually reflect the people they are intended to serve.

Enshrining that in state law, with a citizens-run commission or an independent body that is as free of political meddling as this admittedly partisan process can be, would go a long way toward restoring competitiveness and result in longer-lasting change than the ephemeral appeal of term limits.

But that would take actual political will — something that tends to be in short supply in both Harrisburg and Washington D.C.

But if it actually happened, that would be one crossover worth reading.

We might even get the Ed Rendell action figure — with the Kung Fu grip.

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
Our Battle for the Ballot series rolls onward this Thursday morning, with a nationwide look at the mischief that too often results from something everyone agrees is healthy: Purging voter rolls of inaccurate information. In the wrong hands, however, this can result in Black and minority voters being disenfranchised.

As Pennsylvanians begin casting their ballots, former Vice President Joe Biden has leaped out to a double-digit lead in a pair of statewide polls, your humble newsletter author reports.

With the U.S. Supreme Court set to hear a Philadelphia LGBTQ rights case, our partners at the Philadelphia Gay News take a look at the high court’s history with LGBTQ Americans.

The Affordable Care Act is in ‘grave danger’ if the U.S. Supreme Court gets a conservative majority, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., warned Wednesday. Correspondent Marie Albiges has the story.

On our Commentary Page, opinion regular Fletcher McClellan, co-writing with recent Elizabethtown College grad Amanda Haflerconsiders the paradox of criminal justice reform. 

(Image via Pittsburgh City Paper)

Negotiations over Pennsylvania’s mail-in ballot law may be sputtering back to life, the Associated Press reports (via the Inquirer).
Reports that President Donald Trump may hold an event in Pittsburgh next week have sparked criticism, the Post-Gazette reports.
PennLive has the schedule for the virtual 2021 Farm Show.
The Morning Call answers its readers’ questions about the 2020 election.
Seven Wilkes-Barre cops are in quarantine, one more is in isolation, after testing positive for COVID-19, the Citizens-Voice reports.

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:

WHYY-FM looks at how Black-owned businesses are helping each other through the pandemic.
A judge has tossed Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati’s, R-Jefferson,
lawsuit against several Pennsylvania journalists, The Caucus reports (via WITF-FM). 

Democratic state Treasurer Joe Torsella is on the air with his first ad, PoliticsPA reports.
NYMag’s Intelligencer looks at the three factors that determined Wednesday’s Veep debate.
Mike Pence wouldn’t say Wednesday night that he would step down 
if he and Trump lose, Talking Points Memo reports.

What Goes On.
10 a.m (Online): House Democratic Policy Committee

Gov. Tom Wolf
 holds a 1:30 p.m. newser in York to warn of the Pennsylvania implications if the U.S. Supreme Court tosses the Affordable Care Act.

What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition).
7:30 a.m.:
 Breakfast for Rep. Greg Rothman
11 a.m.: Golf tournament for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman
5:30 p.m.: 
Reception for Sen. John DiSanto
Ride the circuit, and give at the max, and you’re out an absolutely mind-bending $25,000 today. For. Three. Events. Now go back up there and re-read our argument for campaign finance reform.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Best wishes go out this morning to Capital-Star opinion contributor Dick Polman and to PR guy Keegan Gibson, both of whom celebrate today. Congrats, gents, and enjoy the day.

Heavy Rotation.
Heres an absolute classic from XTC, it’s ‘King for A Day.’ This one will have you humming all day.

Thursday’s Gratuitous Soccer Link.
The Guardian has the results of a new survey that reveals the pervasive gender discrimination in professional football.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.