Parsing the patois of politics


AS IN ANY profession, politicians and those who work with them share a common and unique tongue. Those admitted to the cozy world of the State House must learn this new language.

With the General Assembly session in full throttle, more verbal shorthand is creeping into the quotes and sound bites used by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and members of the legislature.

Here's a guide to the phrases you might read or hear -- and what they really mean:

Win-win-win: When that tired favorite, a "win-win," isn't enough to earn supporters, it's time to supersize it. A "win-win-win" is a full 50-percent larger than its smaller cousin. Ehrlich uses the new model to point out how his slot machines would help fund education, assist the horse-racing industry and close the budget deficit.

Everything is on the table: Leading lawmakers trying to figure out how to fill a $1.2 billion shortfall say they want to examine all options. They tell us that "everything is on the table," but what they really mean is they haven't figured out how to do it. Ehrlich, however, has pulled some things "off the table," namely sales and income tax increases. And in Annapolis these days, one of the most valued commodities is "a seat at the table." Fewer and fewer folks have one, but everybody wants one.

Draconian budget cuts: Just how bad are these? They're named after a 7th century B.C. Athenian statesman and his harsh code of laws, but also point to a species of gigantic toothed serpents or dragons that populate Greek mythology. Some spat a venomous poison that killed at the touch. In other words, about as bad as a sales tax increase, in the eyes of a Republican administration. There are no other kinds of cuts being talked about in Annapolis this year: Not sustainable, prudent, timely or unfortunate. Just Draconian. Who would want that?

Leveling the playing field: Don't believe it when a lobbyist tells you that her bill merely "levels the playing field" between the industry she represents and someone else. Chances are, the measure tilts that field heavily in her direction, enough to topple an opponent. Invariably, those who claim their bills level the playing field are immediately followed by others who call it a "special interest bill."

Non-starter: This describes an idea that the governor or legislative leaders won't even consider, and is seldom heard outside the State House. Few are the fathers who say: "Billy, your idea of sleeping over Mike's house tonight is a non-starter, but maybe we'll rent a movie instead."

Summer study: This is purgatory for questionable legislation. Bills that go here aren't quite dead, but they're not exactly alive. They'll get chewed on for a few months, then given another chance in the subsequent session. At least it gives lobbyists something to do in July and August.

Snakes: This is the time of year to watch out for these invasive creatures, which live in committees, and on the floors of the House and Senate. In Annapolis parlance, snakes are amendments to bills whose intended consequences don't become apparent until well after the session is over.

Bad policy and bad politics: The ultimate insult for an idea or a bill. It means not only are you morally wrong, you're also stupid.

Red-headed Eskimo: This is a bill that sounds like it's broad, but on careful reading is drawn so narrowly that it affects only one person or company.

The Smell Test: Sort of an Annapolis version of the MSPAP, bills and amendments must pass this to proceed to the next level. Another option is a related exam, the Laugh Test.

I'd be happy to get you that information: When lobbyists give this answer in a hearing, it means they've been caught off guard and haven't done their homework. Also used by overworked, underpaid legislative analysts responding to delegates and senators who ask dopey questions. What it means then is: "It may look like I'm taking notes about your stupid question, but I'm pretty sure you'll forget about it in an hour, and I have neither the time nor the inclination to help you out."

He might not read 'em, but he sure can write 'em

It comes as something of a surprise to many in the State House when they learn that Ehrlich doesn't read newspapers.

Lawmakers will sometimes ask the governor if he's seen a particular article or column or editorial that morning. He'll respond that he makes it a practice not to read it.

Sometimes he'll ask his staff to track down a piece he has heard about. And, of course, he is briefed on issues. But he doesn't spend the early hours getting his fingers smudged.

Even so, Ehrlich has now decided he wants to write a column. His press office e-mailed a news release yesterday titled "Governor Ehrlich to Author Newspaper Column."

"There are dozens of smaller weekly newspapers across the state," said Ehrlich in a statement. "Most have neither the staff nor the budget to open an Annapolis bureau. This column will give me the opportunity to communicate directly with these folks."

The initial column thanks the men and women of the state work force who toiled through the Presidents Day storm.

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor, said Ehrlich will not change his reading habits now that he's a scribe.

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