Maryland's House is not a home

Frank A. DeFilippo

January 07, 1993|By Frank A. DeFilippo

THE Maryland House of Delegates is one house that's not a home.

It's true that as the General Assembly gathers for its 1993 session, the key question taunting Annapolis rubberneckers is whether the dysfunctional House of Delegates can relax, get its act together and start behaving like consenting adults.

The House has been wracked by two years of internecine backstabbing over state tax policies. It's been ripped apart by bitter regional rivalries. And it's divided by the ham-handed dictates of its autocratic speaker. High on loyalty but low on decorum, the House resembles not so much a parliamentary body of a chosen few as it does the warring ethnic factions of an East-bloc nation.

Early last year, Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, rammed through a pricey tax package over the objections of House Republicans and many members of his own leadership team of Democrats. As a result, Mr. Mitchell got his shorts in a knot and threatened to decommission many of his rebellious hand-picked lieutenants.

Then, in a kind of role reversal, Mr. Mitchell last month had to beat back a threat to his speakership by dint of a public challenge from his very own speaker pro tem, Del. Nancy Kopp, D-Mont.

The uprising was the result of the state's decision to discontinue Social Security payments to local governments for teachers and librarians. With millions of dollars at stake, the special session provoked a divisive feud among legislators from the Baltimore area and the Maryland suburbs around Washington.

Between times, Mr. Mitchell forced his own Appropriations Committee chairman, Charles "Buzz" Ryan, to resign from the House. He lost the services of another committee chairman, Del. Anne Perkins of Baltimore, who resigned to assume a teaching position in China.

Mr. Mitchell scuttled Ms. Perkins' Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee and redistributed its members among other major House committees, further altering their makeup and cohesion.

And now, with the sly connivance of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Mr. Mitchell has eased the Judiciary Committee chairman, Del. John Arnick, out of the House and into a coveted seat on the Baltimore County judiciary, further thinning the ranks of experienced leaders.

Moreover, through other purges and cleansings, Mr. Mitchell has virtually restructured his entire House leadership team to give it a decidedly rural coloration.

There are those in the House who view Mr. Mitchell's bodacious display of power as a method of enforcing discipline and control. But others see the maneuvering as further deepening the dark mood of the House and intensifying the nastiness that has bubbled to the surface in the last two years.

And as if that weren't enough, last year's legislative redistricting has thrust many members of the House into newly redrawn districts where they're campaigning for the 1994 elections while still representing their old constituents.

So with Democrats and Republicans divided with unaccustomed vehemence, with the Baltimore and Washington regions snarling at each other trying to decide whether to make love or war, with a speaker whose principal weapon is retaliation and with rural and urban legislators competing for scarce state dollars, comes now the House Democratic Research Group.

The House Democratic Research Group is the illegitimate child of a group of Washington area lawmakers. It's supposed to be the Democrats' human-trumpet response to the highly vocal and visible tiny band of 25 House Republicans.

But many House veterans view the organization as (at best) just another rival power bloc in the already fractured House or (at worst) an ill-conceived attempt by liberal Democrats to take over the House. HDRG's chairman is Del. Gene Counihan (D-Mont.). It has the imprimatur of Mr. Mitchell, and its executive director and staff will operate out of Democratic Party headquarters on Main Street, just a chip shot from the State House.

The last such group in the House was formed in 1967 to demand reform of the House rules and leadership. It was organized and led by such newly-elected reform-minded delegates as Paul Sarbanes, Walter Orlinsky and Rosalie Abrams.

But the group self-destructed before the 1967 session was over when its members suddenly discovered that they lacked enough votes (72) to override the leadership on reform issues.

For the past several years, the House has been the power center of Annapolis, not only because of its size but because Gov. William Donald Schaefer has relinquished more and more responsibility and authority to Speaker Mitchell through surreptitious deals on such things as redistricting and tax policy.

It used to be said that the General Assembly was a rubber stamp for the governor. Today it's become a rubber stamp for the leadership.

So the question is this: Can the House get itself together or will it take the sanitizing effect of an election and the threat of term limitations to send 'em a message? And anyone who doesn't think it's possible ought to take a look at what happened to the U.S. House of Representatives. There are 110 new faces.

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

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