When Senator Toomey Strikes, We Could Strike Out

“Toomey, Toomey, Toomey,” jeered U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, home to an estimated 275,000 Jews. 

Pat Toomey could not get elected as a senator for Illinois, our sixth most populous state, but since 2010 he was narrowly elected to two terms in Pennsylvania amid low turnout in Philadelphia for each election. 

One can draw a straight line between his re-election in 2016, possibly on Donald Trump’s coattails and his late December proposal to shut off a safety valve to salvage state and municipal budgets such as those in his home state. And mine. 

Toomey’s stature exemplifies much of what is wrong with the U.S. Senate, a legislative body that is often exploited to undermine vital programs that the majority of Americans need. The minority of Americans very frequently control the Senate, even when a majority of senators combine to represent the majority of citizens. 

The Senate has already blocked gun control and a “public option” as part of the Affordable Care Act when Democrats held the majority. 

Colorado Sen.-elect John Hickenlooper is among 46 Democrats, along with two independents, who currently represent more than 170 million citizens, more than half the population. If Jon Ossoff and the Rev Raphael Warnock are both elected to the Senate in Georgia’s Jan. 5 runoffs, Democrats will effectively hold the majority since Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will have the power to break tie votes. 

Even then, pressing legislation can still be undermined because of how the Senate currently operates. Can anyone spell f-i-l-i-b-u-s-t-e-r? 

The defects of the Senate should concern the Jewish community, roughly 75 percent of which vote Democratic. The vast majority lives in states that are consistently represented by Democrats in both Senate seats. Together, New York, California and New Jersey alone are home to 3 million Jews. 

Even in states where Republicans dominate, House members who represent congressional districts with large Jewish populations are often Democrats, as with Cleveland in Ohio and Broward and Palm Beach counties in Florida; President Trump lost his adopted home Palm Beach County in his presidential re-election bid. 

An estimated 90,000 Jews currently live in the Boulder-Denver area, and I am personally aware that Jews have been moving to the vicinity. 

This is not about partisanship but rather good government and a representative democracy. Something wrong with universal health care? Keeping guns from criminals? Control climate change? 

Most damaging is the unrepresentative nature of the Senate. As many readers are aware, each state is allowed two senators, no matter how large or small the populations. However urgent the needs in New York or California, our first and fourth most populous states, citizens there must rely on senators from Wyoming and Idaho (both low-population states) to address their concerns; they usually do not. 

Take notice, too, that many of the larger states send billions of dollars more to the federal treasury than they get back. Any wonder that living in New York, New Jersey and California is so expensive? Durbin’s state, Illinois, the ongoing target of killers with out-of-state guns, is also among the high-donor states. 

For his entire four-year term, Trump has refused to activate movement on a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River linking New Jersey with New York City. Anyone who has attempted to travel between the two states understands the demand for the tunnel. 

If both Ossoff and Warnock are elected, giving Democrats its majority. Senate Democrats will also be undermined by the filibuster, which requires 60 senators to move legislation. The majority of the Senate can eliminate the filibuster, which prevented passage of gun control, the public option in the Affordable Care Act and other common-sense legislation. 

Already, Sen. Jon Manchin of West Virginia, a Democrat, pledged to vote against eliminating the filibuster. Only Republicans would be left to help, and that is doubtful. 

Which brings us to another glitch in the Senate. Those Republicans stick together. It is rare when GOP senators are willing to break off from their party. 

It is especially frustrating for a voter who resides in a state that is deeply factionalized, as I can attest. Pennsylvania may be the most dysfunctional state in the country. We have large numbers of what are essentially liberals in Philadelphia, and hard-rightwingers in central Pennsylvania where people do not agree to disagree. 

The liberal/conservative divide has infected Pennsylvania for a long time, but the state has moved from center-right to center-left in recent years. Democrat Sen. Robert P. Casey, Jr., son of a popular governor, helped to break the state’s political mold in 2006 after many years in which most senators were Republicans. He evicted Rick Santorum from the Senate and was re-elected to a third term in 2018. 

However, Pat Toomey won his 2010 election with 51.1 percent of the vote, and received a 48.77 percent plurality in 2016, possibly due to luck both years because of low voter turnout in Philadelphia. Maybe he eked out his plurality in part on Trump’s coattails. 

Toomey, showing how elections have consequences, opened a push to end the elimination of a series of emergency lending programs that, as The New York Times reports, “would end and prevent the Fed (Federal Reserve) and Treasury Department from setting up any similar one in the future. 

“Democrats balked, arguing that the move would deprive the Fed of critical tools for bolstering the economy, and tie Mr. Biden’s hands…Shortly before midnight Saturday (Dec. 19), in talks with Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, Toomey agreed to narrow his language considerably, to a provision that would bar only emergency lending programs that were more or less exact copycats of the ones newly employed in 2020.” 

Defending Toomey’s move, columnist George Will said Democrats sought to extend the lending programs “to bail out Democratic-run states and municipalities that, long before the pandemic, were fiscal wrecks.” 

True. Good fortune, so to speak, for the federal treasury that New York and Illinois could never reduce their contributions and tend to local needs. 

About Bruce Ticker

Bruce S. Ticker, who writes from Philadelphia, also blogs for The San Diego Jewish World and Smirking Chimp and previously for the suspended Philadelphia Jewish Voice. He was previously a reporter and copy editor for daily newspapers in eastern Pennsylvania.

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