Schaefer, the censor

July 10, 1992

Gov. William Donald Schaefer could hardly do a better job of inviting the legislature to undermine the powers of his office. By preventing senior officials from testifying before legislative committees, he is starting a battle he can't win.

It was bad enough that he prohibited state employees from talking to reporters without first clearing the queries through his office. That was silly and self-defeating, since he and his staff would soon be doing nothing else. Now he is striking at the heart of representative government, and he will inevitably come up the loser.

The General Assembly won't sit still for such treatment. One way or another, it will punish the governor.

Several legislative committees already have the power to subpoena witnesses. It would take only a simple law to give that power to all committees. The legislature, sometimes spitefully, has slashed the budgets of officials it deemed unresponsive to its prerogatives. It could easily create a standoff over the budget next year until the governor got the point.

None of this does anyone any good. The bedrock of our governmental system, in Annapolis no less than in Washington, is checks and balances. The legislature can't govern without Mr. Schaefer, and he can't govern without the legislature. The courts monitor the behavior of both.

That's high school civics, and Mr. Schaefer would do well to refresh his memory. The legislature can't perform its essential functions -- notably, from Mr. Schaefer's viewpoint, appropriating money to run the government -- without knowing what the agencies are doing, and questioning officials on how well or badly their agencies are performing.

By setting himself up as Grand Censor, Mr. Schaefer undermines the public's faith in its government. The voters -- not just the legislators -- must know what public agencies are up to if they are to have a voice in influencing policy. That is what democracy is all about.

Secrecy is the last refuge of the petty bureaucrat -- or the despot. Mr. Schaefer is neither. But he has a bad habit of acting like one from time to time.

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