In the House, Major Renovations

BARRY RASCOVAR

October 04, 1992|By BARRY RASCOVAR

When House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell returns to his offic after a fall vacation in the gambling mecca of Nevada, he'll face his own roll of the dice. He's intent on engineering the biggest mid-term shake-up of a legislative body in recent Maryland history.

Already, Mr. Mitchell has helped shove two committee chairmen out the door, made it clear that a third is persona non grata and laid the groundwork for the abolition of one committee so he can pack the money panels with colleagues who will toe the conservative Mitchell line on budget-cutting matters.

But some officials are having second thoughts about the wisdom of these moves. They point to the Law of Unintended Consequences. What Speaker Mitchell has wrought may not be what the speaker really had in mind.

Both Anne Perkins -- who chaired Constitutional and Administrative Law -- and Charles "Buzz" Ryan -- Appropriations -- quit the legislature to make career changes. (Ms. Perkins is off to teach in China, Mr. Ryan is making big bucks at the University of Maryland Medical System).

But in each case Mr. Mitchell helped precipitate the move. Both had failed to be the "loyal soldier" the speaker wants in top House posts. They had dared to challenge, in private, the wisdom of some of Mr. Mitchell's moves.

Their punishment: They were relegated to the nether world of the House leadership without much hope of escape as long as Mr. Mitchell is in control. With such a bleak future, why not try another career?

The third committee chairman to be axed is Del. John Arnick, who also challenged the speaker. His openly opposed Mr. Mitchell's tax-hike plans, a clear defiance of leadership that could not be tolerated. Efforts to find another line of work for Mr. Arnick as a judge have failed; now the search is under way for an executive-branch job.

His successor as chairman of the Judiciary Committee will be, not surprisingly, Del. J. Ernest Bell II, a cautious, thoughtful legislator from Southern Maryland. Mr. Mitchell wants to place conservative, rural lawmakers like himself in as many key posts as possible. The problem is that he's running out of rural legislators to fill all the gaps.

Paramount in Mr. Mitchell's mind is ensuring that the House's two money committees implement the Mitchell Plan for downsizing state government, which could lead to the elimination of 2,000 to 5,000 jobs before it's all over. That means removing dissenters and liberals from these panels -- or at least neutralizing their influence.

So even though Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, a city liberal if there ever was one, was named chairman of the key Appropriations Committee, he had to pledge obeisance to Mr. Mitchell's cost-cutting ways to get the job. Another liberal city delegate, Samuel "Sandy" Rosenberg, is on the way out as an Appropriations subcommittee chairman because he was not a big enough budget-cutter last session.

In the biggest move of all, the speaker wants to eliminate entirely Ms. Perkins' old committee, Constitutional and Administrative Law (CAL). The theory is that he can then juggle committee rosters, packing Appropriations and Ways and Means with budget-cutting loyalists.

It sounds good in theory, but maybe not in practice. For starters, CAL is already the dumping ground for delegates in disfavor with Mr. Mitchell. Distributing these "trouble-makers" -- plus the non-Mitchell supporters pulled from the two money committees -- to other panels could have the unforeseen result of simply creating more headaches for Mr. Mitchell.

At the same time, by purifying the two money committees of dissenters, the speaker may force divisive budget and tax fights onto the House floor. That is dangerous because it is far easier to muffle dissent in a committee than in a chamber of 141 members. Things could get out of hand quickly on the House floor.

Balancing such a large committee roster is always delicate. This move could prove especially tricky. A mid-term shift of such magnitude could set off brush fires all over the Lowe House Office Building and the State House -- especially since Mr. Mitchell seems intent on enforcing his own conservative budgeting agenda that may not mesh with the thinking of many legislators.

Mr. Mitchell finds himself in an envious position. He has emerged as one of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's few legislative allies, someone the governor trusts. He has eclipsed Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller as top dog in the legislative hierarchy. There are no potential rivals to lead a palace coup. And he ranks as one of the top legislative authorities on the complex state budget process at a time when budget knowledge is power.

Yet shaking up the House of Delegates so thoroughly could prove a risky venture. It's a gamble only a vacationer to Nevada would make.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column on Maryland politics appears here each Sunday.

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