Annapolis on the Danube

Bill Shepard

January 19, 1991|By Bill Shepard

Potomac The holiday air, the exposition of important issues and the good wishes of friends and family members all contributed to a festive atmosphere as the Maryland General Assembly convened for its 387th session.

As the ceremony proceeded, my memory sped unexpectedly back to another parliamentary opening session, in an ornate neo-Gothic building on the right bank of the Danube. I watched the Hungarian parliament from the diplomatic observers loge, as political officer of the American Embassy in Budapest.

At that session in 1970, there was also pageantry and a sense of occasion. The newly elected members of parliament, all having passed the tests for reliability imposed by the People's Patriotic Front, seemed well-meaning. And they took some preliminary votes on the leadership. All were unanimous.

They elected an official recorder, their youngest member, a young woman from western Hungary. She took her seat facing her fellow members with pride. Then the speakers droned on, featuring in that opening session the safest political topic, which was ritualistic denunciation of the United States.

I translated the essence of the proceedings from Hungarian to English for our ambassador whom I had accompanied to the session, and also prepared my recommendation on the precise point where invective against our nation would require that the ambassador leave the parliament, thereby becoming the news of the day.

While considering that judgment, from time to time I cast a glimpse at the proceedings below, and became fascinated watching the young recorder. She had started taking notes of the proceedings. Then it dawned on her that the proceedings were being surreptitiously recorded, not for parliamentary purposes, since the Hungarian parliament served no real legislative function, but the Hungarian secret police, the AVO. And the speeches were all being read. Probably the AVO had helped write them.

Thoroughly embarrassed at her discoveries, the recorder gradually eased from attempted verbatim note taking to summaries of what was being said. Finally, she stopped writing altogether. She seemed to blush crimson with the belated realization that she had been used as part of a charade.

In Annapolis, following the swearing-in of the newly elected delegates, nominations were in order for the office of speaker. The ritualistic nominating and seconding speeches were made. There was no Republican nominee. Mr. Mitchell was elected unanimously. Then at his urging the rules of the last session were proposed and adopted unanimously.

Committee chairmen were announced by the speaker, and all of those persons, and every vice chairman, are Democrats. The floor leadership of the Democratic majority was announced, but not that of the minority. Finally, the membership of the house committees was read, the clerk continuing for a bit although a power failure meant that she could not be heard. It didn't matter. Everything had been decided in advance.

I asked a former House of Delegates minority leader whether it had ever been the custom for the minority to put forth its own nominees. He replied that such a maneuver would be viewed as dilatory. But he joined me in looking forward to the day when it would not be a dilatory move, but a practical political one.

Before the session began, it was difficult enough for the Republican leadership to have the House's own rules respected regarding the numbers of the minority that should be on the House's various committees. But with nine new Republican delegates, and with a conviction that political momentum is with them, Republicans are beginning to challenge some of the old ways.

Maryland is the only state in the union that by unwritten rule does not allow free debate in the House of Delegates. A gag rule stipulates that members of any House committee may not speak against a bill that their committee has reported favorably to the House floor. In no other state are the very legislators who have heard the testimony and weighed the evidence precluded from freely offering their opinions to the full legislature. No wonder only two bills out of over 800 were defeated on the House floor last year. And no wonder that the budget debate last year, for the first time, was not televised. There was nothing worth reporting.

House Republicans challenged the gag rule this week and were easily brushed aside, but the challenge is not a partisan one. Every newly elected Democrat as well, and particularly the first-termers, should see that it is in their own best interests -- and that of their constituents -- for them to be able to state in open debate their best judgments on the issues. The gag rule merely consigns junior Democrats to years on a legislative treadmill.

It is premature to expect that slow gains in minority representation will translate into a full-fledged democratic system at Annapolis. But then, nobody really expected last year at this time that a serious political challenge could be made to Governor Schaefer. When the minority in the House of Delegates is able to achieve reasonable treatment, then debates there will become meaningful for all of Maryland, with decisions made openly, and in the glare of publicity and competition.

That, after all, is what democracy is all about. It has been achieved on the Danube. I look forward to its full implementation at Annapolis as well.

Mr. Shepard was the Republican candidate for governor last year.

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