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A Legislature at Risk

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Maryland General Assembly has a strong reputation of fiscal integrity and leadership, dating back to the second decade of this century. Our prized triple-A bond rating is the ultimate testament to this strong leadership.

At a time when legislative bodies at all levels have suffered from political paralysis, the Maryland legislature has been able to react decisively and responsibly, even in the most difficult of times. Our state weathered the political crises of the late 1970s, the savings-and-loan crisis of the mid-1980s, and in the 1990s, the most severe recession in this half of the century.

Through all these trials, our state remained strong because of independent, principled legislative leadership. We passed balanced budgets. We responded decisively to crisis. We established legislative priorities. We imposed discipline on our spending. We imposed discipline on our borrowing. We planned for our future.

Today, our tradition of a strong, decisive, independent legislature is at risk. We are beginning to see the worst features of congressional governance imported from Washington to state capitals, including Annapolis.

The membership of the Maryland legislature is still overwhelmingly composed of hard-working, decent, committed public servants. But these members are confronted with major changes in the institution of the legislature itself. These changes, I think, have serious implications for the state.

First of all, the citizen legislature is becoming extinct. The timing of our winter session owes its roots to the first legislative session in 1634, which occurred during the break between harvesting and planting, when ploughman and fishermen could leave their primary pursuits for a brief time to make laws before returning to their families and their livelihoods.

This citizen legislature has served Maryland well for the last 360 years. Both houses of the General Assembly have an impressive history of Marylanders who came from all walks of life, enjoyed diverse careers, yet found time to serve in their state legislature. Legislative service was just that -- service -- and not a career in itself.

This expectation is changing dramatically. When I came to the General Assembly in 1979, there were 41 practicing lawyers in the legislature. After this next election, there will be fewer than 20. I do not suggest we just need more lawyers in the legislature. But the numbers tell part of a larger story -- the rise of the full-time legislature. Nearly every member of the legislature with meaningful career or business commitments has expressed to me serious concern about the steady movement toward making legislating a full-time occupation.

A full-time legislature would have a profoundly negative impact on state policy. We need look no further than the Congress to see the effects of full-time legislating on public policy. In 1991, Alan Ehrenhalt wrote a thoughtful book, the "United States of Ambition," which examined the erosion of governance that is occurring in state legislatures as they become full-time enterprises. There are, however, several things that can be done to avoid a full-time legislature in Maryland.

First, the state should consider a biennial budget. A biennial budget is a sound idea in itself because it promotes long-range planning, encourages consistency in policy from year to year, and reduces excessive legislative oversight. A happy by-product a biennial budget is that it would also allow for a short session in non-budget years, significantly reducing the time demands on legislative service.

Second, the legislature needs to reduce the level of micromanagement of executive-branch agencies. Endless hours spent debating the most exhaustive details of state administration are harmful to both the executive and legislature. The harm to the executive is obvious: it suffocates effective execution of state policy. The harm to the legislature is more subtle but no less real: energy spent on minutiae diverts attention from the tougher and more elusive job of making major policy choices for the state.

Ben Cardin, who was a superb speaker, used to say that he always hoped we would have big things to fight about, because otherwise we would spend the session fighting about small things. He couldn't have been more right. The session agenda and legislative staff work can, in fact, be more oriented toward framing and deciding major issues, and leaving administration to the administrators.

Third, the legislature should continue to hold the line on General Assembly salary increases so as to reflect the part-time nature of the legislative responsibility. The salary of the legislator -- like the schedule -- should emphasize that legislating is not a full-time occupation.

There are two other trends which are equally disturbing. One is the rise of partisanship. When I arrived in the General Assembly in 1979, partisan maneuvering and bickering were at a minimum. Today, daily partisan tactics, campaign-oriented floor amendments, and roll-calls staged solely for publicity purposes have increasingly become part of the legislative day. This is particularly true in the House of Delegates.

There was a time when floor debates served primarily to educate the membership and sway legislative opinion. Increasingly, the legislative debate has other primary purposes; to put the member on the six o'clock news or to gain some small, daily political advantage. Many of these debates create artificial differences between the membership and distract the House from meaningful problem-solving.

There is a time and place for partisanship. However, I can't help but think that our most significant legislative accomplishments have resulted from true bipartisan cooperation. This may be heresy to some, but no political party has a monopoly on the best solutions to our fiscal, environmental and educational problems. We need more Jack Cades and Bob Nealls, not fewer.

The final trend is the rise of special-interest groups. The media have chronicled the rise of lobbying and campaign fund-raising. There is nothing new about interest-group politics except its modern intensity, and the increased sensitivity of elected officials everywhere to interest-group pressure.

Many members, however, are becoming noticeably conscious of which votes are "scorecard" votes. Group endorsements are now perceived to carry much more weight than they actually do. The excesses of interest-group politics is at its most extreme in the current gubernatorial campaign, but it also permeates legislative decision-making.

The truth is that few roll-calls or endorsements, if any, spell the difference between success and failure at the polls. The public is less concerned about whether public officials are liberal or conservative, whether they are endorsed by labor or business, whether they are pro-life or pro-choice.

Instead, the public looks at a member's behavior on issues as a window into larger questions about the legislator's judgment, character, personality and commitment. When I was first elected, my father told me that "the best politics is to try to do what you think is right. If you do, the politics usually takes care of itself." I have learned, sometimes the hard way, how right my father was.

Del. Timothy F. Maloney, D.-Prince Georges, announced his retirement from the House of Delegates last week. This article is taken from a letter Mr. Maloney wrote to the House speaker, Del. Casper R. Taylor Jr., explaining his decision.

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