For lawmakers, here's a primer

January 13, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

LET'S give a hearty welcome to our state delegates and senators who return to Annapolis today for their 90-day legislative session.

And let's give a special round of applause to the seven senators and 30 delegates who are new to the scene.

They've got some learning to do.

What follows are suggestions for these freshman legislators as they start their four-year terms with today's ceremonial meeting: Don't expect to revolutionize the State House immediately. Indeed, much of your first session will be devoted to getting an education in practical politics.

Textbook explanations of lawmaking won't prepare you for what lies ahead.

The mind-numbing hours in committees listening to the pros and cons on hundreds of bills.

The thousands of votes you will cast on them and on a bewildering array of amendments.

The incredible pressures on you from every imaginable interest group.

You will quickly discover that for each controversy there are multiple shades of interpretation. Nothing is clean or simple when you are dealing with human problems.

You won't get everything you want on an issue. Settle for small victories. In a democratic legislature of 188 men and women representing this diverse state, total agreement on every section of a bill isn't possible. Seeking consensus is the key to success.

Avoid high-paid lobbyists like the plague. Let them provide you with information, but keep a considerable distance. Too many veteran legislators are way too cozy with these paid advocates. It hurts the institution, and it hurts lawmakers' credibility.

Don't get caught up in the game of extorting lobbyists for hefty campaign contributions. This smarmy activity -- there was a flurry of fund raisers in the past month -- is becoming widespread. It gives the appearance that legislators are putting their votes up for the highest bidders.

Respect the legislative process. It is complicated and time-consuming, but the procedure for crafting state laws is a good one, with plenty of checks and balances. The tensions implicit in this activity reflect the crosscurrents within our society.

Leave your political ideologies at home. Maryland's General Assembly works well because Democrats and Republicans often ignore their party labels and sit down together to solve problems for constituents.

Don't reach any conclusion hastily, or come to Annapolis with set-in-concrete positions. Remain flexible. That's how most issues are resolved.

Don't play "Rebel Without a Cause" right away. Both the House and the Senate have a strong hierarchical system. Learn how it works, and how to make it work for you.

Don't play hooky. Spending long hours in your committee will give you expertise in a variety of subjects. It is in those long committee meetings that the hard work of legislating -- molding and shaping a bill -- is achieved.

Always keep your word. Legislators who can't be trusted to keep a commitment to vote a certain way on a bill are generally ostracized. If you have a change of heart, have the courage to let your colleagues know about it well before the vote.

When in doubt, vote your conscience. Do not be swayed by well-organized special interest groups that pester your office with "grass-roots" phone calls and letter-writing campaigns to pressure you into voting their way. Your courage will be respected back home.

Always remember that public service in the General Assembly is a high honor. Few people win this privilege. It's not about compensation or standing ovations. It's about making a difference. This is your big opportunity.

Make the most of it.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 1/13/99

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