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January 27, 2006

General Assembly Journal - Extra

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Last Friday was a banner day for parliamentary wonks and legislative historians. Changes to House rules are complicated, confusing, and calculated to strengthen the majority and/or weaken the minority.

Last week's change was no different. During the 2005 session, I wrote extensively about a constitutional amendment to define marriage in Maryland as being between a man and a woman.

The Annotated Code already includes a definition that clearly distinguishes marriage in that manner. For the last few years, a court challenge to that definition has been working its way through the state judicial system. Several gay couples filed the suit, using a legal challenge that has met with some success in other parts of the country.

Del. Donald Dwyer (R., Anne Arundel), easily the most conservative member of the House of Delegates, sponsored the constitutional amendment bill. Delegate Dwyer is the darling of the religious right, and he is a regular speaker at churches around the state.

He is also the delegate who joined the 10 Commandments fight, welcoming high profile speakers to Annapolis for a rally two years ago. Don serves on the House Judiciary Committee, the standing committee where all such issues are adjudicated.

Given his service on the Judiciary Committee, one might suspect that Delegate Dwyer would have at least limited success getting his legislative agenda through the committee. Not so, given the fact that Don is a member of the minority, and that his agenda runs counter to every liberal special interest in the state.

So when Delegate Dwyer tried to introduce his marriage definition bill, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Del. Joe Vallario (D., Prince Georges), promptly "stuck it in the drawer."

You can look through every handbook, pamphlet, and Internet references on the Maryland House of Delegates, including our official Rules, and you cannot find any reference to the ability of a committee chair to "stick a bill in a drawer."

You'll find references to debate, voting, hearings, amendments, and petitions. Nowhere does the "drawer" appear. So, even though the procedure doesn't exist, the majority allows committee chairmen the right to pull a David Copperfield and just make a bill disappear.

When Delegate Dwyer's marriage bill suffered that fate, he sought help to try and resurrect his proposal. The House Rules allow for a Petition from Committee, a formal procedure to obtain enough signatures to force a committee to bring a bill out to the floor.

As is normally the case with everything that happens here, the majority got a hint of this procedure before it could be pulled off. The bill was promptly scheduled for a last minute vote and killed, circumventing the ability to petition it out.

Delegate Dwyer is a crafty legislator, and not one to admit defeat on a trick. He scoured the remaining bills in the pipeline, and found a non-controversial local marriage bill still working its way to the floor.

He developed a floor amendment that drafted his constitutional amendment onto this otherwise innocent little local bill. That action threw the House into a tailspin, bringing down cries of subterfuge and anarchy from the traditionalists.

Of course, his justification was that if the committee process could be manipulated to kill his bill, he would use the Rules to bring his idea to the chamber. In the end, his attempt at a parliamentary maneuver was killed, on a close to party line vote.

This year, Speaker Michael Busch (D., Anne Arundel) and the majority decided that if the Rules gave the minority the option of using the bill amendment process to introduce a constitutional amendment, they had to remove that ability.

The Democrats were able to easily gather the necessary votes to force this artificial restriction of minority rights. Not to be outdone, the Republican Caucus offered our own Rules change.

This change was truly groundbreaking. It suggests that every bill that is introduced by a delegate should receive a final vote. Wow, imagine that? Every bill getting a vote, what a shock. Those darned Republicans and their radical ideas!

I wish you could have been here to listen to the floor arguments against having the House committees cast a vote on every bill. Majority Whip (and Lieutenant Governor candidate on the O'Malley ticket) Anthony Brown (D., PG), an eloquent and passionate debater, actually suggested that some delegates introduce bills just for the political image enhancement. Probably a Democrat!

Minority Whip Tony O'Donnell (R., Calvert), newly returned to his seat at the front of the chamber (having survived his banishment by Speaker Busch), stood to argue for the GOP rule change about a vote for every bill. He tried to explain that this was only necessary because of the "pocket veto" of Delegate Dwyer's bill.

During his floor speech, Delegate O'Donnell referred to the Baltimore Circuit Court ruling that held that Maryland's ban against gay marriage was unconstitutional in making his argument for the rule change.

Speaker Busch grabbed his gavel, leaned into his microphone, and announced "the gentleman is out of order." Calling a delegate out of order means that the delegate has done or said something that is inappropriate. Delegate O' Donnell waited a moment, then proceeded to close out his remarks.

Again, Speaker Busch ruled him out of order, this time adding a slap of the gavel for attention. Delegate O'Donnell inquired as to what he had done to get called out; Speaker Busch shrugged his shoulders and scowled.

No shrinking violet, Delegate O'Donnell challenged the ruling of the chair. In parliamentary speak, this is a legislative atom bomb. When a delegate challenges the rule of the chair, the presiding officer must surrender the dais, stepping down and taking a seat among the other delegates.

Obviously, this is not a step taken lightly. There will almost surely be consequences for this; and none of them good.

The majority party has a parliamentarian, and that person, Del. Pauline Menes (D., PG), was called to the dais along with the Speaker Pro Tem, Adrienne Jones (D., PG). Joining them was the Majority Leader, Kumar Barve (D., Montgomery), the Minority Whip, Anthony Brown (D., PG), and the granddaddy of the Chamber, Del. John Arnick (D., Baltimore Co.).

This august gathering was completely and totally flummoxed. They all leaned in, hands over the Speaker's microphone to prevent the whispers from getting out over the Internet. The Rule book was passed around from person to person, all the while Delegate O'Donnell stood alone at the front of the chamber, standing firm, "holding the floor."

Finally, the level of confusion became so significant that the Speaker Pro Tem had to call for a recess. A RECESS!

In the end, the recess gave them time to come up with a quasi-logical explanation for Speaker Busch's completely illogical attempt to stifle legitimate speech by a member of the House of Delegates.

They announced that the Speaker did not rule Delegate O'Donnell out of order because of his reference to the gay marriage court ruling. The Speaker actually ruled the delegate out of order under the Decorum rule, so that ruling was not debatable.

Not true, but truly artful! This last minute save allowed them to cut off debate and force a strictly party line vote. The upshot of all of this maneuvering is that the existing rules of the House of Delegates have been modified by the majority, mostly because the minority has finally figured out how to work within those same rules. That's the real civics lesson here. The Maryland House of Delegates is more concerned with extending the rule of the majority than it is with giving a voice to all of Maryland.

This isn't even about gay marriage. This is about the legitimate use of rules and procedures in a state legislative body. This is about a majority being so arrogant that they will change the rules to block any chance for a real issues debate.

If Frederick County voters needed an excuse to vote for fundamental political change, how about the idea that our elected representatives are being denied the right to vote the wishes of county voters by a tyrannical majority?

The regular Journal entry will be back Monday in its usual place.

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