As has been the tradition for decades, a smattering of Harford County high school students, who have an interest in government, public policy and, or politics, will get a chance to see Maryland's legislative process as it happens
As part of this year's contingent of student pages, they will learn what happens when the noble theories of representative democracy and public service meet the imperfections of the human conditions. A few days after the festivities of the new year have faded, the Maryland General Assembly will open with substantial ceremony. It will meet, debate and compromise — sometimes loudly and in public forums, but most often in byzantine processes that have their origins, like the General Assembly itself, in the 1600s.
The students will learn that checks and balances are not always wielded in a friendly way. For example, many hundreds of bills will be introduced, some early, some right on deadlines imposed by the leadership, and others well after the deadline. It's not, however, first come, first served. Just because a legislator introduces a bill early doesn't mean that bill will ever be taken up for consideration by a committee, a subcommittee or the whole house or senate. The leadership of the house or senate — which is elected by the members of the respective chamber — decides which legislation goes where, and when that happens.
This may not seem fair from the perspective of someone who has arrived early to buy tickets to an event, but it is a check of sorts. The leadership, being elected by those of the prevailing political leanings, needs to be able to make sure there is time to take action on certain key legislation, like the annual budget bill. If legislation had to be considered on a first come, first served basis, a single dissenting legislator could submit enough legislation early enough to gum up the works for weeks. In a 90-day session, this could result in the legislature being rendered powerless.
Still, the result of this rather necessary, but somewhat onerous, check in the system is that members of minority parties are obliged to work harder than their majority party colleagues to have any legislation given serious consideration. Such ugliness in the process as it is seen up close often prompts observers to note that making legislation is like making sausage, both being processes that are unappetizing to watch. No doubt, this year's class of pages will be exposed to both this cliché of government and the reasons for its persistence in American English.
The particular issue of the relative power of the majority party in the legislature is of substantial concern in Harford County, which has been sending mostly Republicans to a legislature whose membership is overwhelmingly Democratic. Many a local senator and delegate from the Grand Old Party has complained in recent years that bills they submit never come up for hearings, debate or votes, owing largely to the leadership doing the scheduling.
This is where another truism of representative democracy comes into play, which is that a good idea, well-presented can get enough political traction to become law. The key isn't in the "good idea" part of the equation, but the "well-presented" part. Though the Maryland General Assembly has been dominated by Democrats for decades, there have been effective Republican legislators. They are effective because they work with members of the opposition party as fellow public servants who have been legitimately elected, rather than treating them like enemies who have tricked their respective electorates.
The pages may or may not learn such intricacies of government in the coming weeks. The lessons aren't particularly easy. Heck, some of the legislators we have been sending from Harford County to Annapolis have failed to learn those lessons after several years in office.
Public servants of all political leanings are obliged to be faithful to the ideologies that got them elected, but they also are responsible to do so within the confines of a system that has served the state fairly well, though certainly imperfectly, since before the Revolution.