Pennsylvania Democrats in Harrisburg and in Washington D.C. are worried about eviction moratoriums, but there should be no mistaking that this panic is largely of their own making.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court of the United States declined to overturn an eviction moratorium issued under the Trump administration, but at the same time strongly hinted that the moratorium was not truly legal.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh was the only justice who wrote a concurrence, pointing out that any future similar moratorium would likely need to be passed by Congress, not issued by fiat through an agency under the executive branch.

In the face of these circumstances, Biden issued a tweaked moratorium anyway backed by new reasoning from the justice department. However, on other occasions he also admitted he was hoping that his moratorium, like Trump’s, wouldn’t be declared illegal until it was too late.

Several media outlets, court followers and legal scholars expressed serious concern about the legality of the maneuver, given Kavanaugh’s warning. Broad + Liberty asked congressional Democrats from the Delaware Valley if they had any rule-of-law concerns about Biden’s moratorium. None responded.

Local Democrats acted shocked and unprepared when SCOTUS snuffed Biden’s moratorium about three weeks later.

According to State Rep. Nikil Saval (D), Pennsylvanians awoke the morning after “to the news that the last thin thread of protection keeping them housed was eliminated overnight, cut with the quick and cruel precision of a justice system that cares nothing for the devastation it leaves in the wake of its decisions.”

Led by Saval, Harrisburg Democrats began asking the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania (SCOPA) to issue a statewide moratorium similar to what it had done early in the pandemic.

Undoubtedly, some Harrisburg Democrats will point out they don’t have majorities in either chamber, so they can’t author a statewide moratorium without Republican help. But Republicans know that landlords have backstopped this crisis for too long, and are also claiming Gov. Wolf isn’t giving them a clear ask on legislation.

The call from Senate Democrats asking the SCOPA to create the new eviction moratorium is unfortunate in that it further politicizes our courts and does so in an election year for SCOPA justices.

Senate Democrats have effectively dropped a political grenade in the court’s chambers. If the justices grant the request, some may have no choice but to run on an agenda in which candidates must freely admit that they will legislate. 

If the court doesn’t grant the request, it’s possible some Senate Democrats will demonize the justices for not doing their bidding, adding to the erosion of trust.

Senate Democrats have effectively dropped a political grenade in the court’s chambers

Compounding all this bad governance is the fact that money remains available for rental assistance across most, if not all, of the commonwealth right now.

“Chester County residents who are worried about being able to make rent and pay their utility bills still have resources available to them to ensure they can remain in their homes,” a press release from the county said, as an example.

Of the $34.5 million the county received from state and federal funds for this purpose, only $14.5 million has been doled out. Numerous other examples exist.

In the earliest days of the pandemic, Democrats found out just how effective cutting red tape could be, for example by allowing nurses to come in from out of state and work without immediately applying for a Pennsylvania nursing license.

That same attitude would be the most helpful one now. Get back to work with county commissioners to dispense the rental-assistance money that’s available right now and cut all obstacles that are slowing the process. Biden’s feint probably allowed some to ignore this work while whistling past the graveyard.

Some Democrats say a moratorium that prevents any eviction for any reason — whether for rent or not — is important to prevent stoking the pandemic and the emerging variants. We say it’s an argument made in good faith, but not a good argument. It lets the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Regrettably, greasing the skids for hundreds of people in a small state House district to get rental-assistance checks from pre-existing programs is less sexy and grabs fewer headlines than passing a full-on moratorium.

Good governing tends to be mundane like that — what a pity.

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