Of pork and piety in politics: Pennsylvania voters must carefully examine primary candidates
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Pennsylvania's primary elections coming up April 24 mean that voters (and newspapers) are perforce in the process of looking closely at candidates and issues.
Don't forget to vote. Unless you are content to let in many cases the local party bosses and organized groups of voters decide for you who will be on the ballot in November, it is in your interest to vote in the primaries.
At the Post-Gazette, we on the editorial board interview the candidates. We take it seriously. Sometimes it isn't easy.
Pennsylvania lost a seat in the House of Representatives since the last election due to population loss. Harrisburg, controlled by Republicans, deemed it proper to eliminate the seat by combining two Western Pennsylvania seats held by Democrats. This sounds iniquitous, but no doubt if the Democrats controlled Harrisburg, they would have combined two districts represented by Republicans.
So voters and the newspaper face a choice of two sitting representatives seeking one Western Pennsylvania seat. For me, two issues are of greatest interest.
One was how the candidates stood on President Barack Obama's health care reform legislation, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The constitutionality of parts of that law, passed on March 22, 2010, is being argued before the Supreme Court this week.
One question there is the political coloration of the court. Will the nine justices look at the issues from a legal point of view, or will they look at this centerpiece of Mr. Obama's first term as an opportunity either to sustain his effort to reform American health care or as a chance to dish him a monumental defeat only months before the presidential election?
That last question shouldn't be a factor, but it should be borne closely in mind by Americans when the court's decision comes out in June, with two points of reference. The first is December 2000, when a dodgy Supreme Court decision gave Americans George W. Bush as president instead of Albert A. Gore Jr. One will never know what Mr. Gore would have done in office, but it is unlikely that he would have given the country massive tax cuts for the rich plus two unfunded, mostly unnecessary wars. ("Mostly," because I consider the front end of the Afghanistan war, getting rid of al-Qaida and driving out the Taliban regime, as necessary.) So the Supreme Court did that for us.
The second Supreme Court question has to do with the future. Two Supreme Court seats may become vacant during the term of the next president. Two conservative appointments -- for life -- would likely mean the end of abortion rights under Roe v. Wade and result in who knows what other impairments of Americans' personal liberty.
So, the congressional vote of March 22, 2010, on health care reform was one of my litmus tests of the two Western Pennsylvania congressional candidates. One of them, in name a Democrat, voted with the Republicans against the measure. It crossed my mind that his vote reflected at least in part his previous employment as a lobbyist for the health care industry. The other candidate, not in Congress at the time and also in name a Democrat, has said that he, too, would have voted against the health care reform bill.
The other issue that needed to be explored to differentiate between the two candidates arose from the fact that one of them had succeeded a congressman widely considered the king of pork on Capitol Hill. There ensued considerable sparring over the definition of pork. The positive view says that a representative should help his district and direct projects there that may be needed but that which also bring home the bacon, as it were, in terms of goodies and jobs paid for by the general populace. This "beggar thy neighbor" approach leaves out the question of whether some other project might be more badly needed by the country. "Pork" or "earmarking" is now, in principle, banned on the Hill. Sure.
It is difficult to argue against pork -- a faithful representative should watch out for his sheep and, besides, all the other congressmen are doing it -- but it is not a sensible or honest way to govern a country or allocate its resources. There is also the question of whether pork projects generate campaign contributions from the beneficiaries to the faithful representative concerned.
So I don't like pork. My objections elicited a sharp defense of it from one of the candidates. The other one cited juicy morsels he had brought home to his district, as well.
I also am on the lookout this year for arguments that deem religious, constitutional or political orthodoxy reasonable.
In 1900, Italy's most popular composer, Giacomo Puccini, presented "Tosca," currently being performed by the Pittsburgh Opera. Italy at that point was very Catholic. Tosca, the central figure in the story, is its most pious character but also a murderer and a suicide. Put that alongside the prattle about cultural issues and religion to which Americans are now being subjected by some of the candidates. America in 2012 is more pious than Italy in 1900? I doubt it.
First Published March 28, 2012 12:00 am