Calling the House to order

Our view: It's no fluke that Busch is the state's longest-serving House speaker

January 10, 2012

He has been pilloried as an obstructionist, named enemy No. 1 by the state Republican Party and occasionally publicly derided by his counterpart in the state Senate. But when the General Assembly reconvenes tomorrow, Michael E. Busch will become the longest-serving House speaker in Maryland history.

He is not quite what one might expect of someone to hold that distinction. He is not slick or scheming. He's not a lawyer and doesn't exhibit the kind of pure political cunning that has helped Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller set the longevity record in his chamber. But even those who disagree with him on the issues should acknowledge that Mr. Busch's tenure as speaker, which began in 2003, is no fluke. He has been effective in ways that his critics often fail to give him credit for, and he has earned tremendous loyalty and affection from House members. This 430th session of the Maryland General Assembly is expected to be a contentious one, and whether it ends in success or failure may ultimately depend on the former youth sports coach from Annapolis.

Senator Miller's control of his chamber is so legendary that, it is often said, he could get the votes to burn the State House down if he wanted to. Much to Mr. Miller's frustration over the years, Mr. Busch does not wield power in that way. Rather than creating a chamber in his own image, as Mr. Miller has done in his decades in power, Mr. Busch is more a reflection of his membership. That has made the House less consistent and predictable in the Busch era, but it doesn't mean that the speaker is unable to exert his leadership. In high-pressure situations, he has shown a deft touch at advancing his priorities, often emerging with the upper hand.

The most famous example came in 2005. Under intense pressure over his chamber's unwillingness to legalize slot machines, but at the same time facing the reality that large blocs of his caucus objected to any expansion of gambling, Mr. Busch engineered a political coup. He shepherded through his chamber a carefully calibrated slots bill that ultimately received 71 votes, the minimum number needed for passage, and only after then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. squeezed every last vote out of his fellow Republicans, even some who had run on an explicitly anti-slots platform.

Mr. Busch then promptly announced that, given the slim margin, it would be impossible for him to get his chamber to accept any changes to its plan, meaning the Senate could take the House bill or leave it. Mr. Miller exploded in anger; Mr. Ehrlich was caught between his desire to see slots pass and his need to keep up relations with the Senate president; and slots died for another year. It was, depending on your perspective, either the most brilliant or the most cynical political move of the era.

But the lasting effect was this: It won the loyalty of both those delegates who objected to expanded gambling and those who feared going before the voters without having had the chance to vote for slots. It enabled Mr. Busch to muster majorities in his chamber for other big votes in the years to come, most notably for a tax package in 2007 that kept Maryland's fiscal problems manageable during the last few years — and for the slots program that voters approved in 2008.

This year, the House is again likely to be the center of action on gay marriage, which the Senate approved last year but which was withdrawn before a vote in the lower chamber, a rare example of Mr. Busch failing to advance an issue of importance to him. The House could also play the deciding role on a transportation funding package (Mr. Miller has long been supportive of higher gas taxes) and on a proposal to transfer some teacher pension costs to local school districts. And another expansion of gambling may be on the table, too.

All that will force Mr. Busch to once again find a delicate balance between pushing his members and reflecting their will. The process may not be pretty — it often isn't in the 141-member House of Delegates, where broad ideological diversity and the electoral insecurity of officials just starting their political careers can make vote counting an adventure. But if this session is to be one of great accomplishment rather than disappointment, Mr. Busch's skill at managing his chamber with earnestness and transparency will be a prime reason for it.

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