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January 17, 2005

General Assembly Journal 2005 - Part 1

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

(Editor's Note: As has been our policy for the past two years, The Tentacle will publish a weekly column by Del. Rick Weldon on the happenings in Annapolis during the General Assembly session. We hope you enjoy it and learn more about the workings of our state government.)

The Special Session is now in the rear view mirror; last Wednesday, the dawn broke on the 419th Session of the Maryland General Assembly.

The partisan rancor and ill will carried over, the only question is how bad will it really be? The House GOP Caucus spent a good deal of time in closed meetings before Session deciding how to handle the sticky problem of the election of the Speaker of the House of Delegates.

Speaker Busch used his power of the gavel to restrict debate during the Special Session. He refused to acknowledge minority members who were seeking their right to explain their vote on the medical malpractice bill.

The rules of the House allow each member two minutes to explain their vote. Other than the rules governing decorum, there are no limits on what a member can say while explaining his or her vote.

I wrote earlier about some other examples of petty partisanship exhibited by the Speaker, including moving the minority whip from his traditional seat at the front of the Chamber to a distant seat in the midst of the southern Maryland delegation.

Each year during a four-year term, the Speaker must stand for reelection to that post. This is considered a formality in the legislature, with the Speaker's election the subject of a voice vote, not a recorded vote.

Keep in mind Weldon's First Rule of Maryland Political Reality: There are 141 delegates in the House, and 98 of them are Democrats.

Some in the Caucus were insisting on a recorded vote, allowing them the opportunity to not only vote against Mike Busch (D., Annapolis), but also to stand after a recorded vote and "explain" their vote.

As is the case anytime you get a bunch of politicians together (especially opinionated Republicans), there was a division of opinion on the best course of action. Others in the caucus were concerned that they didn't want to put a red vote on the board, as it would disrespectful to the institution.

A third school of thought suggested that a less confrontational form of protest would be to seek a recorded vote, and then abstain from voting. This idea, while a classy form of legislative disobedience, resulted in a violation of House rules.

Rule 93 states that if a member is in their seat, it is a violation to fail to cast a vote. You can vote Yay, Nay, or Recuse. Not voting is not an option.

I have written about members who regularly violate this rule, including some very veteran majority members who have never been held to account for this routine violation.

The members concerned about violating rules advocated a mass exodus from the Chamber. No one could question the visual impact of 43 members all standing in unison, walking to the Lounge just before a vote was taken.

Personally, I was advocating for the roll call vote, the abstention from voting, but not walking off the floor. I felt that we could make our point very effectively short of the walkout.

I couldn't escape the idea that as a group we'd appear petty during and after a walkout. It seemed to me that we'd be no better than the behavior we were criticizing with that action.

We actually spent several hours debating this issue, right up until the time we were called to the Chamber to start Session. My motion to tell the Speaker about our plan, to seek a recorded vote, to abstain from voting, and to follow-up with a letter from the caucus to the Speaker explaining the basis for our collective action passed unanimously.

In the end, we did call for the recorded vote, and we (all 43 Republicans, along with one Democrat (Del. Nathaniel Oaks (D., Baltimore)) abstained from voting.

The action resulted in the desired affect. The media noted the lack of GOP votes, and one DC area TV report began this way: "In an unprecedented move, the House Republicans today refused to cast a vote of confidence for Speaker Mike Busch."

Speaker Busch made a short speech to the Chamber, and the focus of his remarks was that we needed to focus on the hard work ahead, and be less concerned with partisan disputes.

He suggested that we should celebrate the nature of a two-party system; that our differences over policy help to shape a better product in the end.

The GOP Caucus has some suggestion for Rules changes next week. The changes make things a little fairer for the minority party. We'll see how committed the Speaker and the majority are to a two party

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