Venomous clauses to bills

Snakes: Legislative additions can be as slippery -- and as poisonous -- as the reptiles

The Political Game

April 13, 1999|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

AN IDLE MIND MAY BE the devil's playground, but the last hours of any General Assembly session are a lush garden for "snakes" -- legislators' name for bills or parts of bills, even the punctuation of bills -- that do mischievous things in slippery, silent and unseen ways.

Efforts have been made over the years to guard against the presence of these creatures, but they're always there -- particularly when legislators are rushing to finish their work.

Buzz Winchester, an Annapolis lobbyist of considerable experience, recently shared his definitions of different snakes in a Maryland Bar Association newsletter.

Snakes, he said, must be carefully identified to determine the level of their toxicity. Some he said should be thought of as the common legislative adder, a breed that brazenly attaches itself to a bill and threatens to kill its host if anyone tries to remove it.

Another variety, he said, is the "dodger sniggler," which tries to distract attention from another part of the bill.

Former House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin, now a congressman, appointed snake catchers to read and reread bills as the end of a session approached. Former Del. Don Robertson was the best at this art, flushing out vipers with uncommon efficiency.

One year, he rose to ask former Del. Joe Owens of Montgomery County to explain a bill that would have changed the reporters' shield law. As introduced, it would have allowed reporters to withhold more notes and work papers -- even when they are demanded by the courts.

Owens confessed. The Judiciary Committee he chaired had removed a number of protections from the bill. The host bill had been going 40 mph forward when it came to him, but by the time his committee had rewritten parts of it, the measure was moving 35 mph backward.

The bill died in the face of this confession. This was a classic adder: even though detected, it did its job, killing the bill.

The pipe and the pants, or the high cost of smoking

Anyone who thinks no relationship exists between money and smoking would have been persuaded otherwise last week by Sen. Clarence W. Blount, the Democratic majority leader.

Blount spoke during a debate on a bill to raise the cigarette tax as a way to dissuade youthful smokers. Some contended that increasing the cost of cigarettes would have little deterrent effect. To those doubters, he offered the parable of the pipe and the pants.

It seems that Blount spotted a handsome pair of trousers recently at Nordstrom. He thought he'd buy a pair. But his wife wondered if $75 wasn't a bit steep. She was skeptical that he could keep them looking as nice as they did on the rack. But he assured her he'd take good care of them and she assented.

He was so confident, he bought two pairs. And weren't they handsome? He was wearing his purchase and invited his colleagues to admire them.

A few days after he made his purchase, he said, he was smoking his pipe -- and a few embers floated down and burned a hole or two in the $75 trousers. The sheepish senator hasn't smoked his pipe since, he said.

Dip, chew as substitutes for the nicotine patch?

Filibusterscan be exhausting

Filibusters can be exhausting -- and very educational, too. Who knew, for example, that chewing tobacco and snuff are good ways to wean yourself from smoking? Some people thought they just caused mouth cancer.

Smokeless tobacco products should have been excluded from the tobacco tax increase, two senators argued, because they really are "transitional" products that can help smokers into abstinence.

"Let's amend out the the dip and chew," said Sen. Alex X. Mooney, a Frederick Republican, "because it is heavily used in rural Western and Southern Maryland." His constituents in Frederick and Washington counties, he said, "will often use dip and chew, which is less harmful than smoking. It helps people quit smoking -- keeps smoke from going directly into their lungs."

"This doesn't mean they'll use dip and chew forever," he said. "This will [be an incentive for] them to move away from smoking. This is not a radical difference in the current bill, but it will make a radical difference in the lives of people who're trying to quit smoking."

No one suggested a different view, but the effort to exempt snuff and chew from the tax was defeated.

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