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What the Annapolis House Could Teach the One in Washington


Washington. -- A year ago I was halfway through my final session in the Maryland General Assembly. Now I am three-quarters of the way through my first 100 days in the U.S. Congress. I am proud to be a member of the House of Representatives, and to be a participant in a time of such historic change. Still, there are things I miss about the House of Delegates -- the general informality, the spirit of cooperation and, of course, the many friends of both parties who still serve there.

On the surface, the two Houses appear to be quite similar -- especially in the wake of the 1994 elections. Both were transformed by a tremendous turnover in membership. Both became more Republican as a result of the electorate's general dissatisfaction with incumbents, many of whom were Democrats.

Having served in both Houses, however, I find that the similarities end there. The bodies represent fundamentally different styles and legislative cultures.

The House of Delegates is a far more collegial place than its national counterpart. As a delegate I worked closely with the four Democratic committee chairmen with whom I served in Annapolis -- Joe Vallario, John Arnick, Danny Long and Bill Horne. Because of the prevailing spirit of comity, we cooperated to such an extent that our differences in party affiliation were largely irrelevant. Rare were the cases when a bill died as a result of the sponsor's party identification alone.

On Capitol Hill, party politics dictate everything. While many Democrats have supported the major tenets of the Republican "Contract with America," most old-guard liberals, especially those from the Northeast and Midwest, have opposed the new majority's reform efforts -- even those enjoying vast bipartisan support among the American people. The ideological gulf that separates the two parties has prevented the pragmatic problem-solving that is usual in Annapolis from taking root in Washington. When politics dominate the legislative agenda, qual-ity representation suffers.

The role played by the two speakers is also very different. Speakers in the House of Delegates routinely yield a great deal of authority to committee chairs. Speaker Newt Gingrich keeps a far tighter rein on the legislative agenda in the House of Representatives. His power exceeds that of any predecessor since the legendary Speaker Sam Rayburn. An example of Mr. Gingrich's power is the Republican conference's recent vote to terminate funding for legislative-service organizations -- independent sources of power that had been a constant irritant for Speaker Tom Foley and the Democratic leadership of the 103rd Congress.

The media environment is another key difference. As a delegate I toiled in relative anonymity; only a few reporters from weekly papers in my district covered my activities. Personal interviews were rare. In Washington the press corps is 5,000 strong and journalists and politicians eye one another with institutional suspicion. We were warned repeatedly about the national press in our orientation period, and the warnings, based on my observations thus far, seem well advised.

Another major difference is the nature of staffs and of constituent relations. In Annapolis my "staff" consisted of a single part-time employee. Now I have 17 people working for me in five offices over three counties. Much of their time is spent responding to the hundreds of letters I receive per week -- a far cry from the relatively modest correspondence I received as a delegate.

The greatest differences are personal. As a delegate, I was recognized on my daily errands by only a relatively few people. Shortly after the November 8 election, I went out to a store in my neighborhood to buy picture frames and was stopped by seven different people, most of whom I did not know, who expressed support and best wishes. This happens regularly, and is vivid proof of the major impact television has had on the modern political environment.

The seven-day schedules and hectic nature of the first 100 days have reduced the amount of time I have to spend with my wife -- though I have promised her that Friday afternoons will be family time once the first hundred days are over. I also have less time to write personal notes and letters to constituents and supporters, a practice I began in Annapolis and plan to resume after the "Contract with America" has been passed.

None of the changes I encountered were completely unexpected. My time in Annapolis prepared me well to serve in ZTC the U.S. House. Indeed, I am one of the relatively few freshman members of the 104th Congress who has had legislative experience. Making use of this experience, I look forward to helping to make the two Houses more similar.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, represents the Second Congressional District.

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