Legislators take ax to some old saws

THE POLITICAL GAME

November 25, 1992|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer

The General Assembly grappled with two of the most fearsome subjects known to politics last week: Social Security and the English language. They handled the Social Security issue with uncommon efficiency.

As usual, English handled them.

Legislators soared to admirable heights on occasion, but some were observed wandering in the deepest rhetorical thickets. Montgomery County legislators were ensnared as they tried to fend off a plan to shed $147 million in Social Security taxes by shifting them to the counties.

Outraged by the powerful forces arrayed against her, Sen. Ida Ruben of Montgomery County struck back in highest dudgeon: "Don't let the arm twisting blind you."

Rushing to the aid of his Montgomery colleague, Sen. Howard A. Denis said, "They have led us down the primrose path into a quagmire."

Del. Howard A. Pete Rawlings observed: "There is no position that is being offered that is more sanctimonious than the other." Annapolis has a chronic budget gap. There is no shortage of sanctimony.

Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, saying a public goodbye as the House adjourned to a loyal staff member who had taken another job: "She's decided to move on to bigger and better pastures."

Language can be a mighty political lever: swaying votes, defusing explosive arguments, embarrassing a shameless majority.

Things can go the other way, too, as arguments are overwrought and defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory.

When Del. Nancy Kopp, D-Montgomery, finished an eloquent and well-reasoned soliloquy in opposition to the Social Security bill in committee, she had at least one of her colleagues moving in her direction. Del. Joe Bartenfelder of Baltimore County had previously been undecided.

But then came Del. Peter Franchot of Montgomery, who spoke of how the shifting of costs was calumny, most foul. "We want a state-of-the-art, world-class education system," he said.

"That," Mr. Bartenfelder said in dignantly, "swung me right around. He wants Montgomery to remain the elite. I'm not down here to make any county the elite. We should all be playing on the same level playing field."

"Level playing field," "sleeping giant" and "quick fix" were heard repeatedly during the debate, but the Assembly was alert to new old saws.

They added a phrase heard during a hearing on the bill. It was immediately slipped into the quiver of quotes: "Stackin' 'em deeper and teachin' 'em cheaper."

Translation: If you shift costs to local government, education aid will be cut for subdivisions with growing student populations. The result?

"Stackin' 'em deeper and teachin' 'em cheaper."

The last word, fittingly, went to a teacher, Ed Viet of Baltimore County: Speaking as a long day of testimony on the Social Security issue came to an end, he warned his audience (crediting Mark Twain):

"I know it's an awful thing to be talked to death, but I'm going to take a stab at it."

The Parris and Bobby Show

One of the most acclaimed rhetorical flourishes of the session was attributed to Sen. Jack Cade, the Anne Arundel County Republican. Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening had just allowed that the special session on Social Security shifting wouldn't even have been necessary if he, Mr. Glendening, had been in charge in the State House.

Well aware of Mr. Glendening's gubernatorial plans, legislators chuckled.

And Senator Cade said dryly, "I was refreshed by the breeze from your flag waving."

Was this thrust at all partisan?

The senator's friend and Republican ally, Anne Arundel Executive Robert R. Neall, was widely regarded as an architect of the cost-shifting plan. The plan passed. He won the battle.

But Mr. Glendening, who may expect to win votes in Montgomery County where the cost-shifting is regarded as betrayal, is waiting for the war.

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