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.