Governed by the clock

Assembly: After three long months, groggy legislators struggle to finish the people's business by Monday.

April 03, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Maryland lawmakers may like to think they serve their constituents, their political party - their country, even. But their one true and heartless master is time.

In the last days before the General Assembly adjourns Monday, when dozens of legislators remain standing thanks to antibiotics and Coca-Cola, no policy tool is more deftly manipulated or resented than the clock.

With about 2,400 bills to consider across three months, the inviolability of the 24-hour day means that decisions about domestic violence, abandoned babies, anti-discrimination law and drunken driving are sometimes made under great pressure - and long after many people's bedtime.

In other words, state policy is being forged by 181 people suffering varying stages of fatigue, jangled nerves, junk-food diets and bad, bad moods.

One of Maryland's longest-serving lawmakers, Sen. Clarence W. Blount, 79, describes the end of the 90-day session this way: "Now is the time when you question your wisdom and judgment in running for office. You ask yourself, `Why in the heck am I here?'

"Right now you go into agony. Right now is when you hate the job. You don't have time to go to the bathroom. You can't go five feet without someone grabbing you."

Like every other politician questioned, Blount will not reveal how the people's business has suffered because of tiredness. "I could give you a long list," the Baltimore Democrat said, "but I won't."

What is sure, Blount and others say, is that lawmaking is affected by human frailty. "Sometimes you hold things up that you wouldn't if you had a clear mind. Sometimes you let things pass that you wouldn't if you had a clear mind. So, yes, there's a downside," the majority leader said.

Everyone involved in the lawmaking process understands this downside. For complicated bills, lobbyists sometimes try to get hearings scheduled early in the afternoon in hopes that no committee member's legs have fallen asleep. (Baltimore Democratic Del. William H. Cole IV said, "Once your legs fall asleep, you're done.")

Witnesses get tired, too. Rommel Crabtree of Harford County testified on a road-sign bill before the House Judiciary Committee. He waited five hours to speak, unable to leave the room in case his bill was called.

He packed spring water, carrots and almonds in his insulated lunch bag. But he forgot his protein drink and Power Bar. Afterward, he had a big headache and was uncertain of his performance.

"Your senses have been dulled after five hours of someone else's testimony," he said. "You can give your spiel, but you lose some of your ability to think on your feet, to figure out where a delegate is going with a question."

Time inspires especially goofy behavior in the Judiciary Committee, known for working until today becomes tomorrow. One recent night, you would have seen powerful Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr., a Prince George's Democrat, suddenly get the giggles while discussing child support.

At 10:10 p.m. you would have noticed Allegany Democratic Del. Kevin Kelly walk over to Del. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, and grab him frat-boy style around the neck. A half-hour later you would have caught Del. Carol S. Petzold, a Montgomery Democrat, opening the committee door and knocking over an advocate listening on the other side.

And you would have heard Del. Donald E. Murphy, a Baltimore County Republican, lose his patience: "We listened to a lot of bullshit bills tonight in this committee, with all due respect to the sponsors."

People are sick, too. They are coughing and drinking hot tea and carrying around Mylanta. Sen. Walter M. Baker, a Cecil Democrat, suffered heart problems midsession that his doctor blamed on "executive stress." Baker jokes he got it from the state's chief executive, Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Dr. David N. Neubauer, a psychiatrist and associate director of the Johns Hopkins Sleep Disorder Center, said, "With sleep deprivation, it is possible for people to have some impairment in their decision-making ability and their higher cognitive functions."

Besides feeling lousy, fatigued people can also lose their inhibitions, and say and do things they normally wouldn't.

Tests by the U.S. military, however, have shown that simple motor functioning is not impaired by sleep deprivation, Neubauer adds. So tired lawmakers are perfectly able to press their vote buttons, although they might not always know why.

That could explain why Prince George's Democratic Sen. Ulysses Currie voted red instead of green the groggy morning after a filibuster on gay rights legislation that lasted until 2:30 a.m. - during which lawmakers napped in the Senate lounge and ate 108 hot dogs.

It wasn't always this exhausting. In the mid-1950s, there were fewer bills, fewer lobbyists and no full-time legislative staff.

The intensity of the session's final days is partly by design. Legislative leaders sometimes hold controversial bills until the end for negotiating leverage or because they are subtly linked to other policy issues.

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