GOP calls for border wall as payday dries up
The weekend marked two dubious landmarks in the ongoing partial shutdown of the federal government: The shutdown became the longest in U.S. history, and thousands of federal workers across Pennsylvania received their first $0 paychecks.
The shutdown shows no signs of stopping, with President Donald Trump refusing to abandon his calls for a border wall and congressional Democrats refusing to entertain the notion. Many in Congress have pushed for a funding package that would pay for some government agencies to resume operations while negotiations continue, but others — including newly sworn-in Rep. John Joyce, R-13th District — are demanding the Democrats agree to wall money.
“These hard-working men and women do not deserve this shutdown. No American does,” Joyce said last week in his first House floor speech, citing federal prison employees based at FCI Loretto. “It’s time to fund the wall and send the president an appropriations package he will sign.”
As the work week came to a close, federal employees posted photos of their $0 pay stubs online. While workers in shuttered agencies must be repaid when a shutdown ends, thousands risk missing rent, mortgage and grocery bills as funds run dry.
More than 97,000 federal workers live in Pennsylvania, some 3,000 of them in Blair and its neighboring counties, according to data collected by the Allentown Morning Call. Of the 97,000, some 12,000 or 13,000 likely went without paychecks, the newspaper claimed.
Some major federal employers in central Pennsylvania, like the Department of Veterans Affairs, remain open with their funding already secured. But as the shutdown pushes on past historic records, more departments could eventually feel the squeeze.
Officials have already expressed concerns that Transportation Safety Administration “sickouts” — unofficial labor actions in which workers call off en masse — could become worse day by day, creating long lines and delays at airports. And national parks like the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site have gone largely unprotected, with services slashed.
Republican lawmakers have expressed sympathy with the furloughed and unpaid workers; Joyce has said he will refuse a congressional paycheck until the shutdown ends.
But as Democrats have stressed, congressional Republican leaders could pressure Trump to end the shutdown themselves. With the new House Democratic majority pushing funding bills to end the shutdown, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and a handful of GOP colleagues could move it further and leave the decision with the president.
McConnell headed home for the weekend, angering Democrats. Meanwhile, many in the Senate — including Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. — have taken a wait-and-see approach as the shutdown drags on.
“President Trump has invited Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi, Minority Leader (Chuck) Schumer and others to the White House tomorrow to try and end this partial government shutdown,” Toomey wrote in a news release on Tuesday, a day before negotiations broke down and Trump launched fresh warnings that he could declare a state of emergency. “At that meeting, I hope an agreement is reached for the sake of hundreds of thousands of federal employees and their families, who are in jeopardy of missing their next paycheck.”
Prison remains issue for 2020 census
Preparations for the 2020 census are grinding along — at a reduced pace — amid the shutdown. But with the once-a-decade national tally close at hand, lingering questions could affect Pennsylvania’s political landscape for years to come.
Among them: Will Pennsylvania’s prison population continue to boost conservative lawmakers in the heart of the state?
Activists and lawmakers in several states have rushed through efforts to end so-called prison gerrymandering, which critics argue awards extra power to less populous, and usually more right-leaning, districts. That’s because state and federal prisons tend to be located in open, rural areas, but house disproportionately urban and non-white populations.
Jailed felons can’t vote in Pennsylvania. Still, their number boost less-populous districts to parity with otherwise more populous ones — for example, pushing a rural district with 700,000 residents to the national average of about 710,000.
The policy clearly impacts central Pennsylvania’s legislative districts. The newly redrawn 13th Congressional District that includes Altoona, for example, covers at least four state prisons and one federal correctional site. Those state prisons held a combined population of at least 7,500, with well over 1,000 more at FCI Loretto in Cambria County.
Meanwhile, the counties containing the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh — with a combined population approaching 3 million — don’t get a single vote counted from state prisons.
The effect can be even more pronounced at the state level, where a House district can be totally reshaped by a prison population of just a couple thousand people. Back in 2009, when the last census approached, researchers identified eight state House districts that met the minimum required size only because they contained prisons.
“When state and local governments use this data to draw legislative districts, they unconstitutionally enhance the weight of a vote cast in districts that contain prisons and dilute those cast in every other district,” activists with the Prison Policy Initiative wrote in 2010.
A handful of states, three of them bordering Pennsylvania, have passed laws barring the counting of prisoners where they’re incarcerated. But the policy remains in effect nationally, where activists focused much of their effort as the Census Bureau prepared its 2020 policies.
Pennsylvania lawmakers made similar efforts in years past, but none have become law. Activists have recently turned to legal efforts, including in Connecticut, where a lawsuit against “prison gerrymandering” remains in the court system.
Locals get committee spots
Local state senators are taking up new roles as the GOP majority announced a fresh slate of committee leaders. The leaders hold sway over which bills pass to the Senate floor for wider consideration and votes.
Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, who just began her first term in the Senate, was awarded the chair of the Intergovernmental Operations Committee. The committee reviews state agencies and departments and seeks means to streamline their operations.
“We need to take a closer look at how we manage all of the programs and services that are funded by taxpayer dollars and make sure we are not missing opportunities to save money and improve the delivery of services,” Ward said in a statement announcing the new job.
Leaders appointed Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria, to head the Communications and Technology Committee, which oversees legislation on the state’s internet, radio and communications systems.
Langerholc said he hopes to modernize the state’s communications networks. In recent years, the committee has discussed changes to the state’s first-responder radio systems and broadband internet access.
Meanwhile, Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre, is set to head the Rules and Executive Nominations Committee for this term. Corman is in his third term as Senate Majority Leader, overseeing a 28-21 Republican majority in the chamber.