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Government & Politics

Senate Panel Votes Down Republican Attempt to Get More Say Over Committee Assignments

Senate Minority Leader Bryan W. Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel) and Senate Minority Whip Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick) on the Senate floor. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

Republicans in the General Assembly want more say over how their members are assigned to committees – but a bid to do so was rejected Friday by the Senate Rules Committee.

Legislators are currently assigned to committees by the House Speaker and the Senate President, both of whom are elected by a chamber-wide vote at the start of each session. But Senate Minority Leader Bryan W. Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel) argues that, given the Democratic supermajority in both the House and Senate, Republicans ultimately lack power in where their own members are assigned.

And while Simonaire said he has a “great working relationship” with Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), he told members of the Senate Rules Committee in a virtual hearing Friday that giving Republicans the final say over committee assignments for their members is ultimately a matter of fair representation.

“The people who elected us don’t necessarily agree on every agenda item the majority party has in there,” Simonaire said.

Simonaire’s proposal, Senate Bill 773, would’ve aligned the Maryland legislature’s committee assignment process with Congress by amending the state constitution and designating the “highest elected member” within each party to assign their own members to standing committees. That process has worked for more than a century in D.C., Simonaire said.

A change to the state constitution would’ve required approval from voters in a referendum.

“We don’t want to emulate the politics and debating that goes on,” Simonaire said. “We’re focusing clearly on the structure that this body has embraced in the past.”

But making the Maryland General Assembly look more like Congress drew the ire of some Democratic committee members, who argued that such a change would lead to partisan bickering.

“In D.C. you have your own teammates tackling each other,” Sen. Craig J. Zucker (D-Montgomery County) said.

Other Democrats echoed Zucker’s concerns: Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore County) said the legislature should be viewed as one cohesive body rather than two separate party-based teams.

“You need to consult with everybody, but you certainly can’t depend on the minority to make a decision where a significant number of the players are going to be,” Kelley said.

Ferguson himself weighed in, and argued that party shouldn’t be the only factor in weighing committee assignments. He noted that, because Maryland has a part-time citizen legislature, different lawmakers bring in a broad range of skills based on their respective professions and backgrounds.

Ferguson also recalled having “intense” conversations with longtime Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D) about the unique role of Maryland’s senate president as a presiding officer. He noted that, in other state legislatures, the majority party leader takes on the presiding officer rule.

And since the senate president is elected by a chamber-wide vote, Ferguson argued that allows for an independent look at committee assignments rather than making decisions solely based on party.

“The Senate of Maryland represents Maryland, and that has to be first and foremost,” Ferguson said.

Former Senate Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman (R), who testified in favor of the bill, said that while the minority party always consults with the senate president about committee assignments, they don’t always get a say. He recalled meeting with Miller before session to essentially be told where his caucus members were being placed.

“When I would go meet with him before session every year, he would basically say ‘Allan, here’s where we’re going to put them,’” Kittleman recalled, adding that he had a good relationship with Miller and never challenged the committee assignments.

Kittleman said allowing minority party leadership to choose where their members are assigned wouldn’t change the power structure in the Senate, but would ensure that the minority party isn’t completely beholden to the will of the majority party.

The committee voted 7-2 to give Simonaire’s proposal an unfavorable report, with Simonaire and fellow Republican George C. Edwards on the losing end.

After the attempted constitutional amendment failed in committee, Simonaire introduced a similar rule change on the Senate floor. He said he was “quite sad” that his bill was voted down in committee, and again urged his Democratic colleagues to allow party control over committee assignments.

That proposed rule change was met with skepticism on the Senate floor. Sen. Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George’s) argued the senate president represents the entire chamber, and not just the Democratic party.

Simonaire, on the other hand, argued that the president is effectively elected by the majority party.

“They’re not a neutral, apolitical person,” Simonaire said.

Kelley reiterated her stance on the bill on the Senate floor, charging that such a change would have a profound impact on a presiding officer’s ability to lead and organize the chamber.

The proposed rule change was then referred back to the Senate Rules Committee, where Simonaire’s constitutional amendment proposal had been voted down just hours earlier.

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