Sausages and legislation

March 22, 1998|By Joe Surkiewicz

SAD but true, more than 50 percent of eligible voters in Maryland aren't registered to vote. And of those registered to vote, fewer than half even bother to go to the polls.

I ought to know. I'm one of them.

I sat out the last presidential election, and before that my participation was lackluster at best. After stepping into the voting booth and pulling the curtain closed, I was never much impressed with the selection of candidates. I would have skipped the entire process if it meant standing in line or if parking was scarce. But my polling place in North Baltimore is never very crowded and it's in walking distance.

A disengaged voter

If anyone was ever disillusioned and disengaged from the political process, that person was me.

That's changed now. I can't put my finger on it, but some events over the past few months showed me -- at age 47 -- that if I don't like the choices offered, the only person to blame is me. So I've decided to get involved in politics. I decided to show my support for reforms in the way politicians raise money for campaigns.

Not a very sexy issue, you say? I agree. But it makes sense -- to me, anyway -- that the best way to broaden the range of choices in the voting booth is to change a system that puts money over votes. Let me give an example.

Common Cause reports that oil companies and car, steel and chemical manufacturers contributed about $22 million in "soft money" since 1991 to loosen the alternative minimum tax on corporations. (It's a law that prevents profitable corporations from avoiding taxes.) It worked -- and the cost to consumers over 10 years will be $18.3 billion.

Not that I blame corporations for looking out for their interests. It's just that I thought politicians elected by the voters were supposed to be looking out for mine. Put into dollars and cents, campaign finance reform starts looking sexy.

My interest piqued, I made a few phone calls. Guess what? Maryland has a few of its own campaign finance reform bills kicking around Annapolis -- Senate bill 609 and House bill 1001. So, after finding out all of the details, this political neophyte drove to the capital a couple of weeks ago to speak at a state Senate committee hearing. Nervously, I signed the speaker log before the hearing began.

There's an old saw about two things you shouldn't see being made -- sausage and laws. Here's another truism: The political process is often boring. Especially if the chairman of the committee considering your favorite bill -- the one you took a day off from work to drive to Annapolis to speak about -- doesn't like it.

Democratic process

You see, the chairman chooses the order of the bills to be discussed. If he or she doesn't like a bill, it gets shoved to the bottom of the agenda. The thinking, I suppose, is that maybe its advocates will get hungry and go home. My bill was last, so it was after 5 p.m. before I could say my few words to the assembled senators on the committee.

All four of them.

You see, after about 4 p.m., the small Senate hearing room had gotten considerably less crowded. It wasn't just that the real estate folks, Eastern Shore separatists and Caroline County liquor board representatives had all had their say about their favorite bills and gone home. The horseshoe-shaped arrangement of desks with the name plates -- about 18 of them -- was just about empty.

The dozen or so absent senators were off performing other chores, I guess. After I spoke in favor of clean, publicly financed campaigns, I blurted that I didn't appreciate the fact that most of the senators who would vote on the bill weren't in the room. And the chairman and vice-chairman were more than just a little condescending as they patiently explained, as a parent would to a child, that the important duties of senators sometimes cause them to rush off.

Am I discouraged? Not at all. It turns out I'm not alone in this quest to clean up campaign financing: Close to a dozen members of Common Cause sat in that hearing room with me for more than four hours and spoke in support of the Senate bill. Next week, I'll be back in Annapolis with them, buttonholing politicians about campaign finance reform.

Joe Surkiewicz is a Baltimore free-lance writer.

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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