Frank DeFilippo on the New Session: Curb Your Enthusiasm

The House chamber in Annapolis. File photo

One by one, and two by two, they come to Annapolis, in every size, shape, age, color, gender and manner of dress, with Democrats mimicking their rambunctious congressional counterparts’ identity politics and a Republican governor who assumes the national stage and may have grandiose ideas beyond the easygoing partner that he was for four years.

Welcome to Maryland’s rendition of divided government, as benign as it may seem, an overwhelmingly Democratic General Assembly, as usual, and the only Republican governor to be elected to a second term since the 1950s.

For this election cycle, in another reflection of the demographic revolution in Washington, 72 women will take seats in the 188-member legislature – 63 Democrats and nine Republicans. The Year of the Woman also ushered a record number, 127, into the new Congress – 102 in the House and 25 in the Senate.

And as with Congress, the antsy arriviste grumble privately that they must wait in line behind the sclerotic leadership of both the Maryland House and the Senate. Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Calvert) has been Senate president for 32 years, since 1987, and Michael Busch (D-Anne Arundel) has been House speaker for 16 years, since 2003. Both are expected to be easily reelected.

Both Miller and Busch have demonstrated their agility as chess players, moving and manipulating lawmakers as protective shields and tamping down any hint of unrest well in advance. This is especially true of the Senate, where Miller lost key members of his leadership team but moved quickly to create a new flank of allies.

Because Maryland is joined at the hip with the nation’s capital, it is among the first states to feel any ripples of change out of Washington. That is due, in large measure, to the state’s federal workforce of 250,000 – or 10 percent of its total – many of whom brownbag to downtown jobs every day. Add to the influence that a heavily populated chunk of Maryland overlaps into the Washington media market.

Frank A. DeFilippo

Much of the anticipation during the 90-day session will be focused on Gov. Larry Hogan, Maryland’s fourth Republican governor since 1950. Hogan assumes the chairmanship of the National Governors Association in June, which automatically gives him a national platform on issues vital to the states but also a chance to amplify his gaping differences with President Trump.

Two other contemporary Maryland governors also served as chairmen of the NGA – Gov. Marvin Mandel (1975-76) and Gov. Parris Glendening (2000-01), both Democrats. The NGA chairmanship alternates annually between Democratic and Republican governors, chosen by their party peers.

Wearing his shiny new set of epaulettes, Hogan will have a major say in shaping the NGA agenda, which is largely the states’ shopping list, as well serving as the point man representing the governors at meetings at the White House and before committees of Congress.

More to his advantage, though, is that he becomes the voice and the face of the governors on television and the go-to official for the enormous pool of Washington journalists, many of whom live in Maryland and count Hogan as their home-state governor.

So a large part of the guessing game in the State House will be whether Hogan has ambitions beyond the governorship of Maryland. His every word and deed will be accounted for with that thought as the measure. Hogan, though, has vowed to remain a home-boy governor who has demonstrated that he understands the best way to beat the Democrats is to act like one. He has given Democrats much of what they want. When he hasn’t, they’ve overridden 15 of his vetoes over the past four years.

The novice legislators have already attended indoctrination sessions. But when they convene on Wednesday, the most abused word in the State House will be “mandate.” Hogan’s nomenclators are already laboriously boasting that their boss received the largest number of votes in Maryland history, and well they should. Does this asterisk in the election board books translate to a mandate in the State House?

In the fog of the antique capital that is ruled by the two Mikes – Miller and Busch – there is only one mandate that counts: 24 votes in the Senate and 71 votes in the House. With those, it’s possible to achieve most anything in the legislature. Without them, mandate is an empty word.

The toughest lesson for newly arrived lawmakers to learn is to curb their enthusiasm. When to rise and speak and when to remain planted and silent is the gift of experience. But the smart ones in the bunch will gain from the Cliff’s Notes of years: (1) Sit and listen to the elder statesmen for a session and learn the rules; and (2) Pick a single issue and become thoroughly knowledgeable instead of being a scatterbrain on every piece of legislation. Those are the surest ways to win friends and gain influence. And one more thing: The only currency you have in the legislature is your word. Don’t break it.

The power of the presiding officers is awesome, and reprisals can be terrible and swift, ranging from a back-bench seat or reassignment to a barely visible or functioning subcommittee that handles innocuous issues. And anyone who tries to shoot the king, best not miss. Others have tried and failed and lived to regret it.

“Never watch sausage or laws being made,” observed Otto von Bismarck.

With the Kirwin Commission report on education and its estimated $4 billion price tag off the table for the session, at the request of Miller and Busch, the most controversial item before the legislature is the court-ordered realignment of the 6th Congressional District boundaries. The due date is March 7.

However, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the Maryland redistricting case once again, this time on appeal by Attorney General Brian Frosh (D), which blunts Hogan’s attempt to preempt the issue and delays resolution of the admittedly gerrymandered 6th District.

Hogan has already advanced an attempt to “Larrymander” the state by creating a nonpartisan commission to oversee the redrawing of the map. The committee held its first meeting last week and is expected to continue its work despite the high court’s decision. But Democrats, rejecting the idea of surrendering the issue to outsiders, no doubt have maps of their own. And after the collision, the issue could end up before the courts once again, in an endless roundelay of stretching the elastic system.

The budget is also a big deal, as it always is. The General Assembly has only one legal requirement during its 90-day session, and that is to adopt a spending program, currently at $44 billion and change. There’s a billion-dollar surplus lying around, and the temptation will be to spend it. But next year brings with it another pesky structural deficit of roughly $800 million. Spend or save will be the budgetary watchwords of the session.

Hogan has also gotten himself into a swivet over a secretive land swap to try and keep the Washington Redskins on the Maryland side of the border. And another of Hogan’s self-made problems is his aggressive promotion of highway expansion, basically privatized toll roads, leading to and around the Maryland suburbs surrounding the District.

Health care, regulation of prescription drugs, sports betting, education, the future of Pimlico, parental rights, minimum wage, crime in Baltimore, ghost guns, ranked elections, legalization of marijuana, raising the legal age to purchase tobacco products, a green new deal are but a sampler of the issues that will have their flashpoints during the session. And who knows what other of the 3,000 or more bills that will be introduced, many, if not most, to find their paths to the shredder by session’s end.

Every session has a rhythm and a pace of its own. No two sessions are alike. It’s an unwritten rule of engagement in the State House that the leadership can muscle through controversial bills of its choice during the first session of a four-year cycle before the tyros catch on to the rules and the system of winks and nods that guide legislation through endless hoops and hurdles.

Those on the sidelines might comfort themselves by heeding the admonition of New York Probate Judge Gideon J. Tucker: “No man’s life, liberty or property is safe when the General Assembly is in session.”

Frank A. DeFilippo
Frank A. DeFilippo is an award-winning political commentator who lives and writes in Baltimore. DeFilippo has been writing about the comic opera of politics for more than 50 years. He reported on the Maryland General Assembly for 10 years before joining the administration of former Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) as press secretary and speechwriter. Between times, he was a White House correspondent during the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he has covered six national political conventions. DeFilippo is the author of Hooked, an alleged work of fiction, and an unpublished manuscript, Shiksa: The Rise and Fall of Marvin Mandel.

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