Lunacy in Annapolis

Frank A. DeFilippo

October 03, 1991|By Frank A. DeFilippo

ANYBODY who wonders why people are turned off on politicians ought to take a look at what's been going on in Annapolis.

The current flapdoodle is two-pronged: Governor Schaefer's attempt to abolish the jobs of 1,766 state workers in a budget crunch and the General Assembly's blundering attempts to adjust the squiggles on the congressional redistricting map. The assembly's special session has been a test of wills between a hard-headed House speaker and a hammer-headed Senate Frank A.DeFilippopresident. And the trouble is, there's nobody around to bang their heads together.

Congressional redistricting is only the latest manifestation of lunacy on the loose. Maryland's financial miasma is the full-mooners' enduring contribution. The gasses emanating from both chambers are little more than a generous bequest in a pauper's will.

Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller, D-Prince George's, and House Speaker Clayton Mitchell, D-Queen Anne's, are the Frick and Frack of Maryland politics. Miller sees the state through his cozy political clubhouse in Prince George's. And Mitchell views the rest of Maryland through the cornfields and crab flats on that primeval bog known as the Eastern Shore.

In the land of the bland the master of the one-liner is often king. Miller is Mr. Quote in Annapolis, the man reporters run to for a snappy bon mot. And Miller has never met at microphone he didn't like. Miller is determined to protect Democrats at any expense.

For his part, Mitchell is a stubborn Eastern Shoreman who's easily committed to preserving his native territory in virtually its natural state as if he's readying it for an archaeological dig.

Both Miller and Mitchell are behaving like political Luddites (those 18th-century followers of a madman named Ned Ludd who believed he could inhibit progress by smashing machines).

In the bad old days it used to be argued that the legislature was simply a seal of approval for the governor. Today it can be advanced with equal vehemence that the General Assembly is merely a rubber stamp for the whims of its leaders. And if this is the case, as it seems to be, it's an unnatural act.

Legislative bodies, by their very nature, are deliberative bodies, not policy-makers. The Constitution invests awesome power in the executive branch, endowing Maryland with one of the strongest executive budget systems in the country.

Yet over the past dozen years, legislators have been chipping away at the authority of the executive at the same time assembly officers have been extending the idea of leadership by broadening the team-player concept.

In both the Senate and the House, virtually every member (in good standing) of the Democratic majority has a title or an assignment, obligating each of them to the president and the speaker in a bonding that eliminates independence or defiance. The result is a dysfunctional government.

Worse, there may be a new assault on the power of the executive. Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, powerful chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, is once again reviving his proposal for a constitutional amendment that would allow the legislature to shift funds in the governor's budget. The change would put the legislature up for sale to every special interest group and voting bloc in the state.

Redistricting is legalized body-snatching. Imagine, if you can, a district that contains the Wisp ski lodge in Garrett County and Bethlehem Steel in Dundalk. That was the plan advanced by Miller with the help of that Montgomery County marplot, Nathan Landow, the Democratic Party's state chairman. Miller called it a people's plan" but soon amended his statement to say that people "don't give a tinker's damn" about redistricting.

To further illuminate the theater of the absurd, while Miller was vacationing in Ireland, Mitchell helped to scuttle Miller's plan with a map of his own that favors the Eastern Shore. After the House adopted Mitchell's plan, the speaker recessed the House and left Miller and the Senate to stew in their own juices.

The Governor Schaefer of just a year ago would have engaged in mouth-to-mouth combat with Miller and Mitchell. But somehow Schaefer seems to have mellowed out, biting his tongue and staying calm, flying above the battle, issuing only occasional burbles of discontent about the state of the map. And this week's flurry of pink slips and budget cuts is the first cannonade in a public relations duel with the assembly to increase taxes by letting virtually everyone experience the pain.

Schaefer's learned a valuable object lesson in politics: If Miller and Mitchell want to make fools of themselves, why interfere?

Frank A. DeFilippo writes every other Thursday on Maryland politics.

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