Harrisburg Republicans are acting like tyrants, using every legislative trick they can to undermine bills that would give voters the power to elect their own representatives.
They must know that if gerrymandering reform bills make it through the legislature, they'll lose their power to fix elections. The reform bills would create an independent citizens commission that would balance legislative districts so that our representatives would have to listen to diverse views from a broader array of constituents. The commission would replace the legislative leaders who now control district maps and draw them to maintain their own power over legislation — and over billions in state funds.
Letting go of this power is difficult because it's addictive. According to Oxford University neuroscientist Nayef Al-Rodhan, a rush of power produces the chemical dopamine, which renders a sense of pleasure, the same type of pleasure users get from gambling or cocaine.
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"Like addicts, most people in positions of power will seek to maintain the high they get from power, sometimes at all costs," Rodhan wrote in The Conversation, an academic journal. "When withheld, power – like any highly addictive agent – produces cravings at the cellular level that generate strong behavioral opposition to giving it up."
And, in Harrisburg, there's an awful lot of cellular-level misbehavior. Last week, Sen. Ryan Aument (R., Lancaster) proffered an amendment to a redistricting bill that would radically alter judicial elections so they are effectively gerrymandered — a concept that has had no public discussion in this legislative session. This was similar to a maneuver by Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler), who took a redistricting bill, supported by 110 of his colleagues, gutted it, and replaced it with legislation that kicked the public out of the process and that would increase the number of political hacks who control redistricting. Every Republican on Metcalfe's committee went along with this sleazy move.
But not all Republicans are so autocratic. It should be noted that in the Senate, two Republicans, Mike Folmer, of Lebanon County, and John Rafferty, of Montgomery County, had the guts to stand up for their constituents and vote against Aument's amendment. The rest went along with this despicable insult to the public.
Though gravely disappointed, good-government advocates are still fighting to get an independent redistricting commission. They're hoping that a bipartisan bill or another bill sponsored by House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R., Indiana) pending in the House Rules Committee is moved and voted before July 6.
If the bills fail, voters will have to wait another decade for legislative district reform. The legislature has to pass redistricting bills by July 6 this year and again in 2019 in order for a question changing the state constitution to be put on the ballot in time for the 2020 census, which triggers district map-making.
Harrisburg politicians are trying to run out the clock with amendments that sabotage, rather than support, democracy. The public should be paying very close attention to this display of unbridled power because it can help voters make choices about which lawmakers need to kick their addiction to power in November, when the entire House and half the Senate are up for election.