Miller, Busch set records for longevity

Political odd couple leads General Assembly

January 10, 2012|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

It's been more than a quarter-century since someone other than Thomas V. Mike Miller was president of the Maryland Senate and almost a decade since House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch was first chosen for his post.

Today, when the two chambers of the General Assembly elect their leaders as the annual session begins, the political odd couple of Miller and Busch will become the longest-serving pair of presiding officers in any state in the nation.

At a lunch gathering Tuesday of the state's top Democrats, U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer hailed the two as "the president for life and speaker forever." It was a joke, but had the ring of truth.

Maryland's extraordinary stability at the top of its legislative bodies has significant consequences for what becomes law in Maryland. Miller, in particular, is capable of virtually single-handedly putting an issue he cares about — such as a proposed merger of the University of Maryland campuses in College Park and Baltimore or an expansion of gambling into Prince George's County — high on the state's agenda of political issues.

And Busch is quite capable of thwarting the Senate chief — as he did for four years on the issue of slot machines.

In a nearly one-party state where Democrats have been the majority party in both houses of the General Assembly since World War I, such entrenched leadership might be expected to limit the free flow of ideas. But allies say the presence of two strong leaders with vastly different styles creates a dynamic tension that keeps either chamber from dominating the other.

Former House Majority Leader D. Bruce Poole, a Democrat, says Maryland benefits from the experience of the two men. "If I'm having brain surgery, I'm not going to want the guy who just got out of medical school," he said.

Not surprisingly, the Maryland Republican Party is less enthusiastic.

"Marylanders are going to have to ask themselves whether they have more or less faith in state government since Senator Miller and Delegate Busch have taken leadership," said party spokesman John Porter. "I'd submit the answer is going to be no."

The reasons for the lack of turnover in Maryland's top legislative posts are varied. Part of the story is the absolute dominance of the Democratic Party in the Assembly, where the last election that gave the Republicans a majority in even one house came in 1917. Another factor is a political culture that values experience and has shown little inclination to adopt the term limits that would make prolonged careers as presiding officers impossible.

No less important are the political skills both Busch and Miller have brought to the task of running legislative chambers in which they have to accommodate the ambitions, emotions and intrigues of politician-sized egos: 47 in the Senate, 141 in the House.

Busch, 65, and Miller, 69, could not be much more different in personality or leadership style. Busch, an Annapolitan who represents a highly competitive city-county district, is a patient consensus-builder who acts very much like the coach of a team. Miller, whose political roots are in Prince George's County but lives in Calvert, is known as a master arm-twister in the style of Lyndon Johnson as U.S. Senate majority leader.

Busch is genuinely liked by most of his caucus and not a few Republicans. Miller may not be beloved, but he is respected, feared and valued by members of his caucus. He tends to deliver the money, the district lines, the advancement opportunities or whatever it takes to get his loyal caucus members re-elected. He faced down an attempt by an ambitious committee chairman to oust him in 2000, and no serious rival has emerged since.

Former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., now a lobbyist, said both men appear well-entrenched. "From everything I can see, I think the overwhelming majority of the membership of both houses today are very comfortable with their presiding officers," he said.

When Taylor lost his seat in 2002, Busch — then a popular committee chairman — moved quickly to sew up the votes needed to be elected speaker. Many in Annapolis expected the new leader to be overwhelmed by a combination of Miller and the new Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

The battle was joined in 2003 over the issue of slot machines, with Miller and Ehrlich lined up in favor of locating them at racetracks. But if Miller was an irresistible force on the issue, strong-arming a bill through the Senate, he ran into an immovable object in the House. Personally opposed to slots and skeptical of a plan he considered a giveaway to the racetracks, Busch defeated the legislation that year.

For the rest of his term, Ehrlich was unable to forge a plan that Busch and Miller could agree on. Not until Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, took office in 2007 was a deal on slots worked out.

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