They can't pass a budget without months of noise, nonsense, and no-no-no's. They can't find money to adequately fund public schools or fix Pennsylvania's highways and bridges. They can't even act swiftly on a no-brainer bill to keep guns far from the clutches of suspected domestic abusers.
But a biologist ticks off Pennsylvania's Republican-dominated Legislature over a $6 increase in state fishing license fees — and legislative action becomes laser-fast and certain.
The power of revenge is without boundary.
Lawmakers draft a bill to oust the scientist from the helm of the Fish and Boat Commission. They move as fast as a Hatfield or McCoy pulling the trigger on a double-barrel shotgun. They pledge to sack the biologist. And the bill for new money to keep streams clean and stocked with trout — that will take a back seat while the political assassination of a trout-fishing and streams bureaucrat becomes top priority.
These, dear readers, are the people you elect — and probably don't even know by name, shame on you — who not only draw Pennsylvania's gerrymandered congressional districts but who control so much else about life in this state.
It's a crew of 50 senators and 203 representatives who'd mostly have us believe that they're powerless pawns in a merciless political system of give and take. But my colleague Justine McDaniel's scoop about the unfolding drama over recreational fishing fees shows that to be a bunch of malarkey (rhetorical hat tip, ex-vice president and onetime Scranton boy Joe Biden.)
During this age when partisan toxicity is blamed for legislative inaction on issues across the spectrum, we see in McDaniel's story that good old-fashioned vengeance is the Magic Drano capable of clearing the clogged lawmaking sewer that Harrisburg has become.
In this case, politicians have pointed their legislative fire toward one foe: Fish and Boat Commission director John Arway.
The foe's fatal faux pas?
For several years, Arway had been unsuccessfully prodding the tea party-beholden Republican majority, whose leaders are from the state's more rural or uber-conservative counties, to pass a law so that fishing license fees would rise from $21 to $27. The fee hasn't budged since 2005, resulting in scores of job and program cuts and now threatening fish hatcheries.
Last fall, Arway, a longtime presence on the commission, dropped the diplomatic gloves.
Saying he had no choice but to soon make $2 million in cuts, Arway told lawmakers he would have to destock streams in districts belonging to the bill's opponents if action wasn't taken to pass the new law. Several hatcheries were also on the chopping block.
He cast for a big fish — but ended up reeling in Jaws.
Influential lawmakers are now looking to annihilate Arway by passing a law to limit his tenure. The bill on new fishing fees? That will wait, they say, until the job is done on Arway.
"Even if the cure for cancer was within that licensing bill," York County Republican Rep. Keith Gillespie said, "I don't think there would be the motivation for the members of the committee or the House to pass it."
This is no small-time spat. The president pro tempore of the Senate himself, Jefferson County Republican Joe Scarnati, sponsored the bill seeking to limit Arway's term to eight years. (Scarnati was one of the lawmakers whose district Arway targeted with threats of no trout.)
Arway's eight-year anniversary was Friday. Funny how the bill's math works out so nicely. Arway gets fired immediately if it passes. GOP committee chairs in both chambers say they'll push the term-limit bill after the Assembly returns to session later this month.
No wonder Pennsylvanians have so strongly disapproved of their state lawmakers in poll after poll that the question doesn't even get asked anymore by pollster Christopher Borick of Muhlenberg College.
"Talk about the pettiness," Borick told me this week. He'a a fisherman himself and finds it absurd that license fees haven't gone up in 13 years.
But this is an ideological battle at its core. Extreme-right-wing, anti-government lawmakers have consistently shown they will do anything to defund government. Harrisburg has become a Thunderdome-like chamber where hard conservatives win battle after battle.
"There are in leadership right now lots of individuals that believe you should not raise any government tax or fee at any time," Borick says. "How are you to manage the resources of the state .. with a stagnant revenue source? The aversion is ideological. It starts ideological and then it becomes personal when you have a bureaucratic figure really push hard."
What really gets Borick in this go-round is Gillespie's statement about how Republicans wouldn't even cure cancer if it meant giving Arway a pass.
"Really? Really? And the reason why you wouldn't pass the cure for cancer is that you're pissed at the director of an agency?" Borick exclaims.
Here's an idea. Let's start a group activity in the name of democracy. You, readers across Pennsylvania, open a web browser and go to this address — www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/legis/home/findyourlegislator/ — and see who represents you in Harrisburg.
After that, tell your neighbors. After that, vote.
Then see who else is running for that seat. If you're not sure whom to pick, send me an email. Let's try to size it up together. This is a giant election year.
Could be fun. And most definitely worth it if it means killing off a few sharks.