The poison of self-interest

April 14, 1996|By Frank Langfitt

In the final days of this year's legislative session, the Maryland General Assembly considered a bill that on principle seemed hard to vote against.

At a time of dismal voter turnout and widespread disaffection with government, some lawmakers proposed making it easier for independent candidates to run for office.

A common sense, "good government" bill?

The Maryland House of Delegates didn't think so. Earlier this month, members killed it by a vote of 74 to 62.

The measure would have lowered the number of signatures required to get a candidate's name on the ballot in Maryland, which has one of the most stringent ballot access laws in the country.

During the floor debate, opponents said it would make the electoral process too easy, encouraging frivolous campaigns by people with no real public support.

"This is a lazy-man's bill," said Del. Thomas E. Dewberry, a Baltimore County Democrat.

No doubt, some believed the argument. But there was another reason to kill off the measure that opponents never mentioned: self-interest.

More candidates mean more competition. And more independent candidates represent a challenge to an entrenched two-party system.

"It's almost as if we're in fear of somebody running against us," said Del. Rushern L. Baker III, a freshman Democrat from Prince George's County who supported the bill. "Who cares? I'll take on anybody who runs against me."

Each year, legislators propose seemingly sensible ideas to try to open up the political process or reduce the influence of special interests. And each year, many of those bills end up in the recycling bin.

The reasons are many, but lawmakers say fear of competition is a frequent culprit.

As with many jobs, people often arrive in Annapolis with plans for reform. Over the years, though, some become more invested in the institution and preserving their place in it. Unsurprisingly, after climbing the rungs in the State House, some lawmakers oppose bills that would make it easier for others to take their jobs.

"Politicians are going to do anything they can to butter their own bread," said Del. John S. Morgan, a Howard County Republican and 5th district congressional candidate who led the floor fight for the ballot access bill. Votes on such legislation "show who the real 'small d' democrats are."

When it comes to reform measures, perhaps no bill has had a worse track record recently than one to abolish Maryland's one-of-a-kind legislative scholarship program.

Each year, lawmakers hand out millions of dollars in scholarships to constituents with few rules and no oversight. At times, they have awarded money to the children of relatives, friends and political supporters. Critics call it an archaic patronage program that helps incumbents stay in office.

Some of the legislature's most powerful members have fought to preserve the system, arguing that it provides critical support to people who might not otherwise receive aid.

One of the program's biggest protectors, Senate Majority Leader and Baltimore Democrat Clarence W. Blount, killed the bill in 1994 by refusing to hold a vote on it in the committee he chairs. This year, the measure was dead on arrival in the Senate and never even received a hearing.

While critics say political self-interest poisons such bills, sometimes other factors come into play. Take this year's measure to provide public money for legislative races.

The bill would have given matching funds to candidates who agreed to spending limits. The goal: control the rising cost of political campaigns and the influence of moneyed interests.

But there were problems.

To fund campaigns, the bill would have closed a tax loophole for direct mail advertising. Once printers and mailing houses found out about it, they flooded legislators with letters complaining they would lose business to other states.

Given the tight state budget, some lawmakers felt uncomfortable using tax dollars to fund campaigns.

"At a time when we're cutting funds for disabled citizens and retirees, I can't justify spending money on politicians," said Del. D. Bruce Poole, a Washington County Democrat, who voted against the measure.

The bill eventually failed in a House committee by a vote of 15 to 3. Even Delegate Morgan, who fought hard for the ballot access measure, voted against it.

Although so-called good government bills have a high mortality rate, they do occasionally pass. After a campaign finance scandal involving then-top lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, the legislature approved a law last year requiring greater disclosure of meals lobbyists buy for lawmakers and banning gifts over $15.

As for pending legislation, reformers measure success one vote at a time.

In the early 1990s, Delegate Morgan was one of perhaps three people to vote for the ballot access bill in his committee. This year, the measure fell just nine votes short of approval by the entire legislature.

Mr. Morgan thinks it and other similar bills will eventually pass.

He sees a large freshman class of legislators who are more loyal to their district's voters than the edicts of General Assembly leaders. He also sees a minority Republican party with revolutionary fervor in a Democrat-dominated state.

"American democracy has changed a lot in the last 30 years," he said. "There is less back room politics than there used to be. People are demanding a more open political process."

And "in the long run, what the voters want, the voters get."

Frank Langfitt covers the Maryland General Assembly for The Sun.

Pub Date: 4/14/96

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