The law and the letters: a painful civics lesson


Marvin Tenberg is one of those people who paid attention in high school civics class, which is why he is so screwed up today.

Tenberg, who lives in Cockeysville, actually believes that if a citizen has something legitimate to say about an issue, he should be able contact his senator or congressman and get a reply.


Sorry. That part always breaks me up.

A few weeks ago, Tenberg read one of my columns on the anti-crime bill that is still wending its way through Congress.

He read about how the leadership of the Senate slipped an amendment into the crime bill making it illegal to protest peacefully against hunting on federal land.

The ACLU, the editorial page of the Washington Post, the Fund for Animals and others have all denounced this amendment as being an unconstitutional abridgment of free speech.

The Senate amendment is a very bad one, opponents say, because it would make it illegal to express an opinion in America.

The House version of the bill does not have this "hunter's rights" amendment in it. That is because a number of members of the House Judiciary Committee including Pat Schroeder, D-Colo, and Don Edwards, D-Calif., the chairman of the Civil and Constitutional Rights subcommittee, wrote a letter to their colleagues opposing it.

"Without a hearing or a single word of debate, the Senate passed sweeping prohibitions on peaceful protests against sport hunting practices as part of its omnibus anti-crime bill," the letter said. "We . . . urge you to vigorously oppose any attempt to turn this misguided, unnecessary and unconstitutional provision into law."

The House and Senate will now meet in a conference committee to see whether the amendment will become law or not.

So Marvin Tenberg correctly figured this would be the perfect time to contact his elected representatives and express his views.

"I contacted the Baltimore offices of Senators Mikulski and Sarbanes, as well as Representative Bentley, to voice my strong opposition to the pro-hunting measure tacked onto the crime bill," Tenberg told me.

And what kind of replies did he get?

"Disturbing," Tenberg said. "Very disturbing."

Paul Sarbanes was the first to reply. Sort of.

"Thank you for getting in touch with me to express your views about the spread of violent crime," Sarbanes wrote.

Which was not what Tenberg had expressed a view about.

But this often happens when you contact a senator. The senator never gets your message or reads your letter. Some aide or volunteer just punches the "crime bill" button on the computer and it spits out a form letter reply to you.

Next to respond was Barbara Mikulski. Somebody in her office actually did know what Tenberg was talking about. The trouble for Tenberg, however, is that Mikulski likes the pro-hunting amendment.

"I believe that this amendment is fair because it protects people engaged in a legally sanctioned activity while still allowing groups to express their views under the first amendment," she wrote.

How Mikulski arrived at that interpretation, which is so far from the interpretation of civil libertarians and other lawmakers, she does not say. But I'm sure the money she receives from the hunting lobby has nothing to do with it.

Next there was Helen Bentley. Actually, Helen Bentley's was the first office Tenberg contacted in late March because Bentley is his congressperson and we all know how congresspeople take care of their constituents, right?


Sorry, there I go again.

Bentley never replied to Tenberg. He called a second time in mid-April, but she never replied to that call either.

But, hey, Bentley is very busy these days. If she takes time to reply to her congressional constituents how will she ever get elected governor and get a chance to not respond to her gubernatorial constituents?

"What a helpless feeling," Tenberg told me Friday. "I live in a democracy, but I don't really have any say. Somehow we need to take back our government from career politicians and lobbyists."



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