Republicans see unwritten House rule as unspeakable

January 10, 1991|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Republican legislators have come up with a novel idea they think could improve the quality of legislation passed by the Democrat-controlled House of Delegates. They call it "debate."

They think there is not enough of it in the House, and today they intend to propose a rule change they hope will encourage more debate.

The problem, as the Republicans see it, is an unwritten but severely enforced House rule that they contend ties the hands of committee members once their committee passes a bill and sends it to the full House for consideration.

The informal rule prohibits members of the House's six standing committees from speaking against or even trying to amend bills at that preliminary stage of the process, known as "second reader."

When bills come up for a final, or "third reader," vote, committee ++ members are free to say what they wish and vote for or against their committee's bills. But by then, under House rules, amendments to House bills are no longer permitted.

The effect, said House Minority Whip Robert H. Kittleman, R-Howard, is that debate, discussion or proposed changes to bills by the legislators who know most about the issues is stifled. As a result, he said, floor debate has become infrequent and ineffective, and even viewed by some lawmakers as a waste of time.

Of the 820 bills that reached the House floor last year, only two died, he said.

"The way the legislature works, you have six small [Houses] of Delegates, each all-powerful in their area. Whatever they pass passes; whatever they kill dies," he said. The Republican's proposed written rule would permit debate, dissent and amendments by committee members on second reader.

New Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington, who as a second-term legislator has never known the House without the unwritten rule in effect, said he doubted the Democratic leadership would support such a change.

"There has to be a final decision sometime, and there has to be some cohesiveness to the committees. Otherwise, there is never an end to debate, never an end to controversy," he said.

Mr. Poole acknowledged that few bills die on the House floor these days, but said that was "a testament to the committee system" and evidence that the rule helped House leaders deal efficiently with as many as 3,000 bills a session.

"We feel junk should be weeded out in committee," he said, "and we should have great faith in our committee system."

But Mr. Kittleman said the problem is so serious that by last session, not one word of debate was uttered, not one amendment adopted and not one cent changed as the House approved the state's $11.6 billion budget for this year.

"Clay [House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent] said it was the first year he could remember that no TV cameras were there to record the budget debate," Mr. Kittleman recalled. "But why come?"

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