We are all sitting there, all bunched up in benches, on a dull gray day in a large courtroom with dull walls, dull carpeting and exposed duct work, no sound but fluorescent hum and the distant whispers of a judge and lawyers. We are sitting and waiting, waiting and sitting, eyes glazing, brains napping, maybe snapping, wanting to read a book, a newspaper, but being ordered by deputy's finger to put it down and wait for your number to be called. The case appears to involve several middle-aged defendants represented by several lawyers, and dTC the judge, far off at the front of the room, says something about this trial lasting a month, ladies and gentlemen. Jury duty. Civic duty. Honorable duty. A long day off from work, from our very ordinary lives. And as the clock moves slowly, painfully toward 4:30 on this long, dull, gray, wasted day, one is seized by an urge. It simmers, then boils . . . up, up, up from the cauldron of primal emotion, an irrational temptation to rise, to step to the front, to face the defendants and scream, "Will you all please just GET A LIFE!"
Contract with Maryland
Does the "Contract With America" (CWA) really reflect America's priorities? If you believe that's what people voted for in November, then the answer is simple. However, if you regard the CWA as savvy marketing strategy by Republicans who wisely exploited the unpopularity of Bill Clinton and his party, then its relation to what America considers important is still open to question, especially when we get down to details. That's where things get fuzzy.
Some insight can be derived from public opinion polls. This Just In: "Maryland Policy Choices 1995," the results of a statewide survey conducted last month by the Schaefer Center for Public Policy at the University of Baltimore. The Republicans, of course, have offered a contract with the nation, not only Maryland. But in light of the results of the November election here -- the Democratic gubernatorial candidate defeating a Republican underdog by fewer than 6,000 votes out of 1.4 million cast -- Maryland now serves as a good, if not ideal, microcosm of national political dynamics. (Didn't somebody call this "America In Miniature?")
Many of the issues addressed by the "Contract" -- national defense, Social Security, congressional terms limits -- were not addressed by the Maryland survey, which had a more provincial focus. But, where possible, we can indulge in some comparative analysis.
For instance, according to the UB survey of 827 Marylanders, public safety and education are our top spending priorities. The CWA, on the other hand, calls for more money for law enforcement, but I barely see a word in it about public education.
Item 3 of the CWA is welfare reform. Based on the results of the Maryland survey, Newt Gingrich probably should have listed it as No. 1. (Actually, if you listened to him and his soulmate, Rush Limbaugh, just before the election, it was the No. 1 issue facing the country.) Not surprisingly, the survey of Marylanders found a hard line on welfare. Nearly three of four people agreed that the current system makes mothers dependent on federal aid.
Item 3 of Newt's CWA proposes forcing enrollment in work programs. Ninety percent of Marylanders think forcing work is a good idea, but 30 percent fewer think welfare recipients should be given public jobs. Instead, a strong majority (86 percent) thinks day care should be provided so welfare recipients can take jobs in the private sector, and 74 percent think businesses that hire welfare recipients should be given tax breaks. A CWA proposal to cut off payments after two years was among the least favored strategies, and even less popular were Republican proposals to make across-the-board cuts, eliminate all programs and increase payments should unwed mothers marry.
Item 8 of the CWA addresses federal regulation and seeks to limit severely the government's ability to impose restrictions on industry and private-property owners. Environmental regulations, in particular, have been lined up for attack. This doesn't seem at all to be what Marylanders want. In fact, they are strongly (83 percent) opposed to relaxing environmental regulations.
Other interesting findings of the Maryland survey:
Only 15 percent felt crime was a major problem in their neighborhoods, while 40 percent said it was "something of a problem." Seventy percent of those in the survey think police do an excellent or "pretty good" job. Only 28 percent said the same for the courts.
Sixty-five percent of Marylanders approve of equal-spending-per-child as a way of allocating funds for public education.
And while 60 percent of people believe legalized gambling contributes to compulsive behavior, an almost equal number said they would approve of casino gambling in certain parts of the state.
On second thought
Last week, I said Gov. Glendening should resist the temptation to sic his lawyers on Ellen R. Sauerbrey for the half-million dollars in legal fees incurred in defending the vote-fraud case she brought. A couple days later, I noticed Item 9 in the Republican "Contract With America." (Sorry. Some of us still haven't committed the complete CWA to memory.) According to a summary of Item 9, titled "legal reform," the Republicans have pledged to penalize "certain frivolous lawsuits by making the loser pick up the winner's legal fees." This tempts me to reconsider my earlier opinion.