If Perot gets in, look out!


TAKE A good look at this year's congressional candidates. The eight you elect might be picking our next president. It's happened twice before. It could happen again this year.

If it does, Maryland's eight members of Congress will cast a single vote in the House of Representatives for the state's 4.5 million citizens -- all because the nation will have failed to say decisively who it wanted for president. And since each state has only one vote, the single representative from Alaska would have as much clout as the 52 members of Congress from California.

Right now, polls across the country show Republican President George Bush, Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Independent Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot in a virtual dead heat, with Mr. Bush or Mr. Perot running first or second, depending upon the state, and Mr. Clinton in third place just about everywhere. Only a point or two separates the three.

The Constitution's simple proposition is that each state is assigned electors -- in Maryland's case 12 -- who will choose from among the presidential candidates. To win in the Electoral College, a candidate needs 270 votes. If the balloting fails to produce a majority, the 12th Amendment provides that the selection of a president falls to the House of Representatives. So if Mr. Perot does well enough in November to deny a clear-cut victory to either Mr. Bush or Mr. Clinton, the Electoral College self-destructs and turns the job of picking a president over to the newly elected House.

Now, picture if you can Maryland's eight newly elected members of Congress being courted in an intense bidding war for the state's single vote. Worse, consider Mr. Perot. Having spent $100 million to stir up the dust, he still has billions left to consummate his election with the promise of bundles of swag for campaign committees and huge computer contracts to corporate co-conspirators.

Don't say he's too principled for such mischief. He's done it before. Mr. Perot has spent millions to influence the tax laws to his benefit; he once promised to ante up $60 million for Richard M. Nixon in exchange for White House access.

Mr. Bush says he'll do whatever it takes to get re-elected. And remember Mr. Clinton's blind ambition, that he's wanted to be president ever since he was young pup?

Now consider the negotiations that would have to occur in the Maryland delegation to produce a single state vote for president in the House. There's the staunch Republicanism of Rep. Helen Delich Bentley and the equally determined liberalism of Democratic Reps. Kweisi Mfume and Ben Cardin. And how about Republican Connie Morella, who votes more like a Democrat than most Democrats?

And of course, there's Rep. Steny H. Hoyer. But suppose Republican Larry Hogan Jr. defeats Mr. Hoyer? And what about tyro Thomas Hattery of Frederick, the moderate Democratic nominee who represents rock-solid conservative Western Maryland?

So if the House gets its hot little hands on the presidency, don't rule anything out. It'll be C-Span television like we've never seen. (The current rule bars the press from observing the proceedings, but House members almost certainly would ease that restriction in this situation.)

Still, the bottom line is this: Congress has no business meddling in the elective process. Choosing a president should be left to the people and not to 435 men and women who have weaknesses for home-town airports, dams, hospitals, massive federal buildings, defense contracts and highways as well as huge appetites for funny money.

Power to the people.

Frank DeFilippo writes a regular column on Maryland politics.

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