The Santorum Problem

In January, a coalition of environmental groups led something like 200 people in a rally against natural gas drilling in the Pennsylvania Capitol’s Main Rotunda. Folks came to the Capitol angry that the legislature looked intent to take away the right of towns to use Zoning to control how close well pads are built to their homes and schools. A frequent shout at rallies like this is some version of, “Let’s vote ‘em out!” Legislators never seem that afraid of losing their jobs. Legislators continue to sell out their constituents in the interest of the rich and powerful, I believe, because of The Santorum Problem.

This is The Santorum Problem: if an incumbent who serves industry actually does get voted out of office on his merits (which is rare), there will always be a much better paying job waiting for him after he loses. If an elected loses for protecting corporate America, corporate America has a golden parachute ready for him.

Click read more to see how I spell this out in a bit more detail...

Rick Santorum lost his Senate seat on his merits; Bob Casey didn’t win it. A milquetoast politician, even the Casey campaign barely mentioned Bob Casey as they worked to unseat Santorum in 2006. Team Casey knew that Pennsylvania voters had become fed up with the Republican Conference Chairman’s attempts to establish a theocracy and that any reasonable Democrat with a moderate resume could beat him that year. Santorum lost not because of a scandal, which is the only thing that can usually take out an incumbent. Rick Santorum lost for consistently being Rick Santorum. On his merits.

Santorum didn’t want to leave the Senate. By all accounts, he loved the Senate, but according to his tax returns he was only making about $200,000 per year then, consistently voting against environmental protections even as he represented a region that has paid a heavy price in public health for its coal industry. In thanks for his loyalty, these days, the former Senator makes over $1 million per year, due in no small part to political consulting gigs from places like Consol Energy, the nation’s biggest coal producer.

And so we have The Santorum Problem. Even if activists can beat an incumbent on the issues, the defeated official can take solace in knowing their income will probably quadruple once they are out. Not much of a threat. That’s why, I believe, that even gathering hundreds of letters from a legislator’s constituents will not move a lawmaker when his patrons have spoken. Kicking them out is little consolation once they've already gotten horrible laws passed.

After all, a horrible law is even harder to boot than an evil legislator.

Activists are always threatening politicians to vote them out of office, and when issues start to get as big and as passionate as natural gas drilling has gotten, it is a wonder to me that legislators don’t fear losing re-election more. The uneasiness with hydrofracking is not dying down. Some of them could lose their jobs, yet they keep doing whatever the gas industry wants.

Despite broad organizing both by elected municipal leaders, environmentalists and the general public against the efforts to give drillers a special exemption from traditional zoning rules (the same rules everyone from homebuilders to big box stores to gas stations have to follow), they still got their exemption.

That’s The Santorum Problem at work. If the industry doesn’t want any rules the legislature won’t write any, no matter how many of their constituents ask them to. Legislators will only write the rules industry demands, because legislators know that if they protect the industry, it will take care of them for doing so.

In other words, the threat to vote them out is no threat at all. It’s the threat of a much better paying job with less grief.

Can you promise a legislator a hundred thousand dollar part time consulting gig if he loses his job for fighting too hard for environmental protections? I can’t, and that’s why the public interest is so disadvantaged in a political system as awash in money as this one.

The solution, I don’t think, is more laws for lawyers to find ways around. The time has come, I think, for those with grievances with corporate America to take their complaints to corporate America (as more Americans seem ready to do). Less rallies at Capitol buildings. More rallies at corporate HQs.

The politicians are nothing more than surrogates hired to take punches on their benefactors’ behalf while industry conducts business as usual.

And that business is killing us slowly, at a nice profit.


My webcomic, Eat The Babies! for semi-funny doses of the same outlook.

Posting Articulates Problems Which Make Term Limits A Bad Idea

This posting articulates the problem that makes term limits and low legislative salaries a bad idea. Forcing legislators and staff to focus on private employment benefits those interest groups that have lucrative private jobs to offer. The concerns that reflect the views of the vast majority of the people rarely have lucrative jobs to offer, and certainly do not have lucrative low-show or no-show jobs to offer. Only if legislators at any level desire future elective office does the public have the ability to sanction them: if their goal is private employment, then the public has little influence. It has, for instance, only been about 50 years since US Steel and Gulf Oil had the vast majority of the Allegheny County delegations in the House and Senate on their payrolls.

Can't really say I endorse that view

But just how to fix it strikes me as a tricky question to sort out. I'm not sure that I'm ready to say that the fact that certain legislators get paid off when they leave off is a BIGGER problem than the fact that a legislator can pretty much coast forever after he or she has won two elections in a row. They are both pretty big problems.

Eat The Babies! A Tuesday and Friday Webcomic. Don't blame me; it was Jonathan Swift's idea.
This Too Will Pass, the Brady Blog

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