The Law and the Lawmakers

March 24, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Corrections and clarifications: Another column implied that none of Maryland's four Republican members of the House of Representatives had served in the state legislature. Bill Ratchford of the legislature's Department of Fiscal Services was the first to point out that Rep. Connie Morella served two terms in the House of Delegates. Your correspondent is abashed, and apologizes.

Havre de Grace.-- Do what we say, don't do what we do. And don't try to make us do what we say, either.

For years, that's been the attitude of Congress, which routinely exempts itself from many of the requirements it imposes on the rest of the country. Occupational safety laws? Access for the disabled? Rights of civil-service employees? Congress thinks all these are important -- but not for Congress.


A few weeks back, before approving a new independent-counsel law to facilitate investigations and prosecutions within the government, Congress carefully exempted itself. On the key amendment, the vote was 238 to 181. Later, those who had voted to keep independent counsels away from Capitol Hill and off their own necks could vote in favor of the bill itself, to demonstrate their concern for ethics in government.

Where does Congress learn this behavior? In many instances its members appear to learn it in the state legislatures. The legislatures, and Maryland's is right up there with the worst of them, often demonstrate the conviction that there should be one law for the people and another for the people who make the laws.

Marina Sarris' wonderful story in The Sun earlier this week about the Maryland General Assembly's public and private attitudes toward smoking gives us a perfect example of the double standard. The legislators are hell-bent to ban smoking anywhere and everywhere, except of course in their own offices and hearing rooms in Annapolis.

Some delegates and senators think this two-faced cynicism is amusing. Others find absolutely outrageous the suggestion that the laws of Maryland should also apply to the lawmakers. Legislators are special people doing special things in a special way and a special place, they say in essence, and must have special treatment or democracy will be in peril. Of course, when other groups, or the lobbyists they must hire to represent them, say the same thing and ask for similar favors, the legislators laugh.

Of Maryland's eight incumbent members of the House of Representatives, four voted to exempt Congress from the independent-counsel law. Of those four, three, including a former speaker of the House of Delegates and a former president of the state Senate, have served in the legislature. Of the other four, who voted to have the independent-counsel law include Congress, not one is a former legislator.

It can be argued -- and has been, and will be ad nauseam -- that what's at issue here is partisan politics, not the expression of a special arrogance first learned in a little legislature and then practiced on the national level in a bigger one. And it's true enough that in the Maryland example, the special-treatment-for-Congress votes came from Democrats, and the treat-everyone-the-same votes came from Republicans.

But that's a distinction without a difference. The prevailing legislative culture in both Annapolis and Washington is determined by Democrats. If it were determined by Republicans and resembled what we have today, it would be similarly objectionable. Party solidarity in protecting legislative perks may fine camouflage for gross behavior, but it isn't a very good excuse for it -- whatever the party.

When a legislative body is dominated by one party, party loyalty and institutional loyalty are commonly indistinguishable. Consider the example of Kweisi Mfume. Of the four Maryland members of the House of Representatives voting to exempt Congress from the independent-counsel law, only Mr. Mfume -- a former Baltimore city councilman -- did his political basic training some place other than the legislative boot camp in Annapolis.

That might have taught him the habit of independence, but if it did, his congressional duties have undone the lesson. Mr. Mfume chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, which is also -- when it shoves Connecticut Congressman Gary Franks, a Republican, out into the hall -- the Congressional Black Democratic Caucus. Leadership of this group may be an honor, but it isn't awarded to iconoclasts.

Of the four Maryland Republicans in the House, the two junior members, Wayne Gilchrest of the First District and Roscoe Bartlett of the Sixth, were chosen to fill the seats of entrenched incumbents precisely because their rural districts were tired of professional politicians. The other two, Helen Bentley of the Second and Constance Morella of the Eighth, have been around longer and are more conventional office holders. But they too come from non-legislative backgrounds, and like Messrs. Gilchrest and Bartlett their instincts and values are not those of the General Assembly.

The public is starting to demand that the drawbridges be lowered, the portcullises raised, and the isolation of these strange legislative societies in Washington and the state capitals be ended. Term limits might help. Even some Democrats -- such as Maryland Delegate Gerry Brewster, who wants to succeed Mrs. Bentley -- support that idea.

But a more old-fashioned, less procedural approach can work too. All that's really necessary is for voters to keep on paying attention, and to give legislative arrogance, whether state or federal, the response it deserves at the polls.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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