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February 20, 2012

Punditry All Around

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Instead of the usual several hundred words on one topic, how about flitting around from issue to issue to cover the spectrum?


First, the GOP presidential primary race: it appears as though all of the people who have been searching for someone other than Mitt Romney have finally found their man. Former U. S. Senator Rick Santorum (PA) has found his footing; he sounds like a legitimate conservative with a pro-blue collar-jobs focus. Contrast that with former Massachusetts Governor Romney's apparent inability to separate himself from his Master of the Universe, one percent, Wall Street persona.


Next, President Barack Obama is sounding increasingly confident of his chances in November. Maybe it's the fact that the GOP field is in the midst of a blood feud for the soul of the party. Maybe it's the slow but obvious upward trend in the economy; or maybe it's just that many voters look at nothing other than a smile and singing ability. Regardless, the president seems to be warming up for a victory lap in November.


At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the GOP leaders in Congress decided to take a different approach to the payroll tax reduction extension. Back in the fall, the House Tea Party Caucus pushed Speaker John Boehner (R., OH) to fight to the death, unwilling to yield an inch to make the point that these giveaways and benefits need to be paid for.


This time, Speaker Boehner led the intense discussions and negotiations to strike a deal – 11 full days ahead of the deadline. What changed? Probably polling data, that harbinger of public reaction to political positioning. The GOP and Tea Party might be very principled, but they are also aware that some things they do may not resonate, even with those compelled to support them.


More locally, the Sixth Congressional District race is heating up for both parties. Republican incumbent Roscoe Bartlett, normally a fairly low key campaigner, is trying to goad Democrat Rob Garagiola into a series of debates across the district. Forget the fact that Mr. Garagiola is still involved in a very competitive primary, Representative Bartlett himself is not yet the choice of his own party.


Roscoe might be well advised to worry more about GOP candidates and save his Lincoln/Douglas act until after the April primary.


On the Democrat side, political favorite son State Sen. Rob Garagiola (D., Montgomery) finds himself in the middle of a flip-flop of epic proportions.


Senator Garagiola is known for several things. He is an attractive, well-spoken, and intelligent member of State Senate President Mike Miller's inner circle. An Annapolis reality is that a member of the leadership is expected to tow the line, even at the peril of their future political ambitions.


In Rob's case that included a toxic mix of liberal positions that seem totally out of character with the new district he hopes to represent. He supported a ban on assault weapons drawn so broadly that it included a number of rifles that are popular with sport shooters. He sponsored the Dream Act, a bill to grant in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants.


Finally, and most problematic to his designs on a seat in Congress, Senator Garagiola was the lead sponsor for President Miller's fuel tax increase proposal in the 2011 session of the General Assembly. They both made the argument that funds were so desperately short for major transportation projects that a 10-cent increase in the fuel tax would allow postponed jobs to move forward.


Fast forward to the present, and the difference between Rob then and now. Then, he wanted to stay in good stead with President Miller. A gas tax hike seemed a small price to pay. Today, he wants to be elected to Congress, replacing Representative Bartlett in the newly redrawn Sixth District. Senator Garagiola recently announced his opposition to a gas tax increase proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley.


Voters’ heads will spin as they attempt to comprehend the magnitude of this flip-flop.


Sticking with political issues in Maryland, the same-sex marriage debate is all the rage...again. Last year, the Senate rushed the bill through, only to see it come to a screeching halt in the House of Delegates.


This year, Senate President Miller (D., Calvert/PG) sent word that the House would have to take the lead on the bill. If Speaker Michael Busch (Anne Arundel) could garner the votes to pass it, then the Senate would do its work.


In a very tense afternoon and evening of legislative work last Friday, the House of Delegates passed the bill with a vote to spare – 72-67. Befitting the significance of the issue, some political controversy followed the process.


During a rare Friday afternoon session, Speaker Busch wrapped up the second reading debate by announcing that the House would return at 4:30 P.M. to vote on the third reading of the bill for final passage. Minority Leader Tony O'Donnell (R., Southern MD) posed a point of inquiry, asking how the House could schedule two readings of a bill in one day, typically a violation of the rules.


Speaker Busch explained that the House was in recess, and had not adjourned. He intended to change the calendar day, a parliamentary maneuver which justified (barely) his action. Mr. O'Donnell then registered his strongest objection on behalf of the minority, to which the Speaker curtly replied: "So Noted."


The final vote tally itself was controversial, with one vote apparently denied by the electronic voting system. Del. John Bohannon (D., Southern MD) had attempted to vote in the affirmative, but his vote did not register. A seasoned General Assembly watcher might speculate that Mr. Bohannon simply wanted to vote “Yes,” but didn't want to be the crucial 71st vote.


Two Republicans voted “Yes” also, Wade Kach (Baltimore Co.) and Robert Costa (Anne Arundel). No doubt the GOP press machine is gearing up for a pariah makeover for both men.


Governor O'Malley added his name to the issue this year, as he was the lead sponsor on the bill. The key was always going to be 24 senators and 71 delegates; the rest of this is all fluff and posturing.

The larger question is this: Why is the government even in the business of defining marriage to begin with? Ignoring the obvious, which is that government has an indisputable tendency to screw up everything it tries to manage, our secular laws and codes should establish legal parameters, not theological conditions.


Leave it to churches to decide whether they want to perform religious ceremonies, or recognize relationships that conflict with their beliefs. Use the institution of law to define civil protections and conditions, and leave faith groups to make their own religious determinations.


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