Stifling House Debate

January 16, 1991

Republicans and a handful of maverick Democrats may have lost a battle in the House of Delegates yesterday, but they still could achieve their objectives in challenging the Democratic leadership over its stifling of debate on the House floor.

While the outcome of the GOP challenge was never in doubt, the 110-26 defeat prompted public discussion of a dangerous trend: use of an unwritten rule by chairmen and the House speaker to impose a lid on floor dialogue. The silent commandment states a delegate may not initially oppose a bill, or offer an amendment, on the floor if that bill is brought to the floor by his committee. Delegates who defy this custom face severe retribution.

The impact of this rule has been the gradual end of meaningful floor debate. In 1974, under Speaker Thomas Hunter Lowe, 26 bills were killed after House discussion. In 1978, under Speaker John Hanson Briscoe, 22 bills were killed this way. In 1982, under Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin, 9 bills died on the House floor; in 1986, Mr. Cardin's House defeated 7 bills after debate. But under Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell, only 2 bills were voted down on the House floor in 1990 -- out of 820 bills that came out of the six standing committees.

Things have gotten so bad that when the state's $11 billion budget reached the floor last year, no one bothered to offer an amendment or ask any questions. The meek delegates simply cast their ballots and washed their hands of the most important matter that comes before them each year.

That is unhealthy for the General Assembly and for the democratic process. Floor debate is an essential element of any legislative body. It ought to be restored in Maryland's House of Delegates.

While Mr. Mitchell and his leaders have every right to impose discipline on the 141-member chamber, they can do so without being dictatorial. A delegate should have the leeway to oppose his or her committee's bills in certain circumstances without fear of punishment. And delegates ought to have the political courage to do so. That would not damage the House's existing committee system. Rather, it would restore credibility to the House. There is nothing wrong with a full debate of the issues. Not in a democracy, at any rate.

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