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In Annapolis, a bland band rules


IT BEGAN 20 years ago on this page. Since then, more than 900 columns have been published under my name, most dealing with Maryland politics and government.

So much has changed in those two decades, and even more has changed since I came to this newspaper and began covering local political gatherings in 1969.

Maryland politics isn't what it used to be. Much of the entertainment has been removed.

Back in the early 1970s, the General Assembly was populated by muldoons -- legislative denizens elected by their local political club ("the machine"). These likable types let their leaders run the show, enjoyed the party atmosphere at the local hangouts and voted as they were instructed.

The House, even in those days, was a disciplined group. Everything was lined up behind the scenes, then given the public stamp of approval.

Over in the Senate, an air of Southern gentility reigned. William S. James, a scholarly conciliator, rarely raised his high-pitched voice. His colleagues worshiped prolonged debates, good manners and a leisurely pace.

The Senate never started or ended on time. It never let time constraints get in its way. A few old-fashioned orators -- especially Paul Bailey of St. Mary's County -- reminded us of what it must have been like when good speechmaking was a staple of politics.

While House committee sessions were tightly controlled, Senate committee gatherings often dissolved into chaos.

And the governor? Back then, governors ruled.

Marvin Mandel, a former House speaker, knew how to pass bills. He employed lobbyists who knew how to cater to the specific wants of rural lawmakers, city muldoons or good government types.

When all else failed, the governor called a legislator in for a fireside chat. Or an entire county delegation trooped off the floor for a command appearance before the pipe-smoking governor.

Those days are long gone.

Governors don't rule the legislature. Since Gov. Harry Hughes, authority has been ceded to the General Assembly. No governor has used the immense leverage of that office to dictate legislative policy.

That has altered the balance of power. Key legislative leaders determine if a governor's bill will pass, and in what form.

Legislative rewrite

Gov. Parris Glendening prides himself on not losing many bills. What he doesn't say is that, in most cases, lawmakers have drastically re-written his bills, sometimes obliterating the original version.

Today's legislature isn't a colorful institution. Political machines are a thing of the past. So are muldoons. The partying has just about disappeared -- and will plunge into an abyss once a new proposal is adopted that would ban lobbyists from buying meals for lawmakers.

Computers and a large support staff have made the General Assembly efficient but dull. Especially in the House, where that iron discipline remains, the cult of personality is lost in the rush to keep the House on schedule.

Speaker Casper Taylor's back-room consensus-building stifles free-wheeling debate and minority dissent. Mass desertions never occur for fear of retribution.

It is an unexciting form of government, but a highly efficient way of quickly passing bills.

Today's Senate lacks the House's discipline, thank goodness. Gripping orations, though, are a thing of the past. Debate drags on interminably.

Senate President Mike Miller has amassed more clout than his predecessors, yet he can't clamp down on his colleagues, who guard their independent ways. So the Senate meanders through its long deliberations, eventually getting its work done by the 90th day.

Dull subjects

Occasionally, a spark of rhetoric will flare. But it's usually over mundane subjects like "smart growth," not overhauling taxes or embarking on a public ethics crusade.

Delegates and senators in 1999 are better educated, and better briefed. They lack individuality, though. That's a shame. Political Maryland could use a few characters to enliven proceedings, and ignite public interest.

You may laugh about wrestler Jesse Ventura's inauguration as Minnesota governor, but you can bet public interest in the legislative session there will be high.

When Maryland's bland band of public policy-makers convenes a week from today in Annapolis, you can be just as sure that shockingly few citizen will pay much attention.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 1/06/99

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