The scene in the House Appropriations Committee room last Friday had all the drama of a modern-day clash between David and Goliath. There was, however, one hitch: This time, after all the stones were thrown, Goliath won -- a little bloodied, but with his head still unbowed.
Goliath, of course, was played by Del. John R. Hargreaves (D-Dorchester), the longtime, formidable committee chairman who has a reputation for regarding his challengers about as warmly as the Reagan State Department looks on Cuba.
David, in this case, was a group of young, independent committee members who joined in a spontaneous uprising against a surprise directive that Hargreaves and the committee leadership had issued that morning.
The directive in question had come forth from a closed meeting of Hargreaves and his three subcommittee chairman. It ordered the subcommittees to ax without further consideration 230 positions that various departments had left vacant for six months or more. Some of the committee members, strained from being closeted with briefing books and bureaucrats in a weeks-long effort to cut the 1982 budget, bridled at being told suddenly how to make decisions.
Del. R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. (D-Kent County), chairman of the panel that oversees the health department budget, appealed to Hargreaves for a meeting in which the dissenters and the team players could hash out their differences. Hargreaves agreed, and at mid-afternoon, the full committee filed solemnly into the meeting room for the confrontation.
"You're going to see a mutiny," one of the dissenters whispered angrily as she took her seat.
"Okay, thrash it out here and now," Hargreaves intoned after everyone was seated. "Everyone can play his role or his part." And indeed, as the hour-long discussion unfolded, it seemed that all committee members assumed roles in the drama.
Among the challengers were the Forces of Restraint, represented most vocally by a usually low-profile freshman delegate, Jennie M. Forehand (D-Montgomery County). She argued that the directive usurped the delegates' discretion and would result in an insensitive elimination of jobs that were justifiably left vacant -- including at least two at a Montgomery County facility for emotionally disturbed children.
Also among the challengers were The Liberals, represented most by Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a freshman Democrat from Baltimore who voted against almost every cut his subcommittee made in welfare and social programs. Rawlings accused Hargreaves of demanding "across-the-board cuts," a charge that caused the ruddy-faced chairman to turn beet red.
Then there were the teeth-gnashing Budget Cutters, the Hargreaves loyalists who generally regard as whimps those colleagues who whine or hesitate in wielding the budget ax.
Del. Robert R. Neall (R-Anne Arundel County) castigated the dissidents for worrying about what he called "nickels and dimes" at a time when the state stands to lose more than $170 million in federal funds due to the Reagan administration's cuts.
"What we're talking about right now is trivial," Neall said with so much feeling that he began squirming in his seat. "We probably disagree over no more than 80 of these positions. And if we're looking at a loss of $172 million next year, I'd say the pot of stew we're in is a lot bigger than 80 positions. . . . Valuable time is being wasted."
Hargreaves smiled at this comment and looked out on committee members whose hands were raised, signaling their desire to be heard on the issue. "You all heard that, did you not? Valuable time is being wasted," he said, his tone a blend of good humor and stern warning.
Only once did Hargreaves explode in anger -- in response to a plaintive request from Forehand for some explanation of why the subcommittees had to make such deep cuts in the budget proposed by Gov. Harry Hughes.
"What we are trying to save for, and how much money are we trying to save?" Forehand asked. "Is it for a pay raise for state employes? Is it to make up for the federal cuts? If we had a goal, I might feel more sure."
With this, Hargreaves showed his colors. He was not taking this challenge at all lightly. "People seem to try to misinterpret what I'm trying to do on purpose, to cause problems," he said, leveling his gaze at Rawlings, Forehand and the other challengers. "I'm not a believer in across-the-board cuts. Is that clear? I don't know how many times I have to explain this."
After several more exchanges, every committee member had had his say and Hargreaves called for a roll-call vote on his directive. The room was hushed as the secretary called out one delegate's name after another, as if polling a jury. For a while, the "yes" votes held sway; then came a wave of "no's." The power of the chairman seemed to be teetering in the balance.
Then came the moment for the secretary to announce the outcome: a tie, 11-11. The delegates looked around at each other, stunned and depleted. All that, and Hargreaves got to make the decision after all by casting the tie-breaking vote.
"I want to say one thing," Del. James R. Dietrich (D-Baltimore) said, just before Hargreaves broke the tie. "It's a good thing we don't let the chairman make up our minds for us in this committee."
With that Hargreaves cast his vote in favor of his own directive and sent the subcommittees back to work.