Handful of lawmakers pulls General Assembly's strings

Leaders drive outcome for most legislation

January 16, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron and Michael Dresser | Thomas W. Waldron and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

In late March, legislators will gather in the spacious office of Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman to make one of the most important decisions of the General Assembly session -- whether Marylanders will get an income tax cut this year.

Only about 10 lawmakers will be in the room. The other 178 members will have little choice but to endorse the decision of the legislative leaders.

In the Assembly, each member gets a vote, but their votes don't always carry the same weight.

The income-tax cut isn't the only issue that will be decided largely by a handful of people during the 90-day legislative session that began last week.

As chairmen of the Senate and House budget committees, Hoffman and Del. Howard P. Rawlings, both of Baltimore, will have extraordinary influence over the final shape of the state's $19 billion budget.

Sen. Walter M. Baker of Cecil County, who heads the Judicial Proceedings Committee, could determine the fate of Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposal to require new safety devices on all handguns sold in state.

And even before the session began, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. had all but passed a bill to cut Maryland's inheritance tax simply by agreeing to do so and picking up the support of the governor.

The bigger the issue, the more important the role played by the State House power brokers -- the presiding officers, committee chairmen and a handful of top lieutenants, all Democrats.

The leaders of the two chambers, Miller and Taylor, control the most important levers of authority.

They assign members to committees, a crucial decision because the panels decide whether a proposal will make it to the House or Senate floor. Taylor and Miller also choose which committee considers a particular bill, a selection that can kill legislation before it has a public hearing.

Sometimes, it's something the president or speaker does not do that affects the outcome of legislation.

Miller recently moved one senator off the Judicial Proceedings Committee but didn't replace him -- a move that made the panel more conservative, consigning issues such as gay rights apparently to early deaths.

"The president has the ability and power to orchestrate various outcomes by putting people in the right place at the right time," acknowledges Miller, in his 14th year as Senate president.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, watched in awe as Miller rammed last year's electric utility deregulation bill through the Senate over the concerns of Frosh and other environmentalists.

"I got flattened," Frosh says. "It wasn't close."

Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., another Montgomery Democrat, says, "Clearly, if one of the presiding officers wants to make something happen, they can move heaven and earth to get it done."

By no means can the president or speaker control everything.

Last year, for example, Miller took his lumps as the Senate passed a 30-cent increase in the cigarette tax against his wishes.

In another case in the early 1990s, Miller was handed a surprising loss when the Senate rejected a bill backed by him and then-House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. that would have banned fund raising during the Assembly session.

"I was certain the groundwork had been laid," Miller says. "But I failed to contemplate these were politicians."

The bill was passed the next year.

Miller and Taylor's leadership styles reflect their vastly different chambers.

Miller oversees only 46 independent-minded senators, meaning he must preside with diplomacy and persuasion.

"Someone said it's like a jockey on a horse -- go light on the reins," Miller says. "If I ever cracked the whip, the horse would buck."

Taylor must control a sprawling body of 141 members, which he does through a military-like hierarchy that generally keeps the troops in line on key votes.

In his sixth year as speaker, Taylor has increased the number of members on his leadership team and created subcommittees, which opened up new sought-after chairmanships.

"I'd like to think that I use my power by empowering others, and I think that it strengthens me," he says.

Bringing more people into leadership has increased the number of lawmakers beholden to the presiding officers, some say.

"It's really enabled the speaker and the president of the Senate to call on these people more often," says Del. Michael E. Busch, chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee. "More people are invested in the system, and as a result they respond."

The lion's share of day-to-day power remains with the 10 chairmen of the main Assembly committees.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg teaches a class in legislation at the University of Maryland Law School and emphasizes in his lectures the "extraordinary power of the chairman."

He should know. For several years, the veteran Baltimore Democrat has sponsored and won House passage of legislation to discourage the filing of so-called "slap" suits -- typically brought by a large company to silence protests from a community group.

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