Pauline Menes, the leader of the women's caucus in the Maryland legislature, pulled out a list of House Judiciary Committee members and started soliciting lobbyists.
"Owens.Who wants Owens?" Silence.
"Koss should talk to him. Joe respects her."
"How about Chasnoff?" I think he likes to be influenced by Marilyn and Sheila."
"He likes you, Pauline. Just the other day he told me what a doll you were."
"Oh, God. He's sweet, but hopeless."
"There's one way you can influence him. Bring in the youngest, prettiest blonde to talk to him. Send him Pitkin."
"What a sexist thing to say."
"Well, it's true."
Thus began the lobbying effort for House Bill 185, a measure that would allow the state to prosecute a husband for forcing his wife into performing sexual acts by using severe force or the threat of death. It was one week ago that the women politicians here gathered around a table at the House office building and worked out the manner in which they would pressure the 18 men on the Judiciary Committee into supporting the first "women's issue" of the session.
But today, on the eve of the committee vote, the full-scale blitz has been all but abandoned and House Bill 185 has been labele a lost cause. It served only as a lesson in how and why a bill gets killed in Annapolis.
Joseph Owens, a veteran delegate from Montgomery County, is the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He is a man known by many names in Annapolis -- "Boss Owens" and "Col. Owens" -- but mostly he is known as the most efficient killer of bills in state history. Every year, his committee gets more bills and kills more bills than any other panel of delegates. It is a well-respected tradition here and Owens, even while smashing the legislative goals of so many of his colleagues, is a respected chairman.
His 22-member committee is always stocked with attorneys and former prosecutors who take pride in their ability to attack faulty logic wherever it arises. Many witnesses who testify before the committee come out feeling that they have just been cross-examined in a courtroom. In fact, Owens and his loyalists on the committee have refined the art of questioning to such a point that they have created a new language with it.
"We usually can read the committee sentiment on a bill just by the way the questioning goes," said Del. Andrew Burns, a former prosecutor who has served on the committee for 12 years. "We all take pride in that. We don't pussyfoot around the way some other committees do."
Owens, who thoroughly enjoys his reputation as a tough conservative, has a simple philosophy on the treatment of legislation: "First you gotta have a problem. Second you gotta have a solution. And third you can't create more damage with the solution than the problem you're trying to solve."
In Owens' opinion, the marital rape bill falls into that third category. "It doesn't accomplish a damn thing," he said yesterday. "The way the law is now a wife can bring an assault charge against the husband for the same thing, and it has the same penalties. No prosecutor is gonna use the rape charge when he can use assault. It's just too damn difficult to do. I think you've got problems with the whole concept of a husband raping his wife and I think that's how the majority of people feel about it. I don't see any good, but I can see harm."
The chairman chuckled to himself at the thought of the women's caucus attempting to sway his committee on the bill. "This is just not a committee that they can lobby," he said. "They sure didn't give me no hard sell -- they know better. When you deal with this stuff day in and day out you get to know this stuff and you can evaluate it on your own. The women know that. As a matter of fact, I kind of have a feeling that they just kinda stumbled onto this issue and don't know how to get rid of it."
As Owens sees it, the marital rape bill falls into the category of "60 Minutes" legislation. "What you see on "60 Minutes" Sunday night you can be sure there'll be a bill coming to our committee the next week on that subject," he said. "There's a tendency to react too quickly to well-publicized events.You should have seen all the 'Son of Sam' legislation we had last year. This time they're reacting to that case out in Oregon [where Greta Rideout, in the first test of that state's new rape law, charged her husband with rape; he was acquitted and the couple reunited after the trial]. You can't go jumping off like that all the time if you want sound legislation."
That is precisely what Owens told Del. Helen Koss, the fellow Montgomery County legislator who was assigned by the women's caucus to discuss the bill with him. She accepted his argument, and his position of influence. "I didn't come here to tilt at windmills," Koss said yesterday. "With Joe against it, this bill doesn't have more than an infinitesimal chance of passing."
A majority of the 18 men on the committee -- including some who said they sympathized with the intent of the bill -- agreed with Koss' assessment. "I had a feeling in the beginning that I would support the bill," said Del. Elmer Hagner. "But then I listened to Joe bring up the point that if it passed the courts might be flooded with frivolous complaints. And you know Joe can influence just by lifting an eyebrow."
Many of the women who were sent off to lobby the male committee members began with a belief that they would be dealing, as one woman put it, with "a committee that is not just conservative, but neanderthal."
"That's really an unfair characterization," said Del. Lorraine Sheehan (D-Prince George's); who was the only woman member of the committee in 1975-76. "Joe's influence is good as well as bad. He let a lot of rape bills out of committee when I was there, but I think he likes to move them slowly.He's had enough of them for a while. You learn a lot about timing when you sit on that committee. You learn to keep your mouth shut until it's really important."