Last Wednesday, James Clark Jr., president of the Maryland Senate, and Benjamin L. Cardin, speaker of the House of Delegates, had a meeting. They sat in Cardin's office, munched on Passover matzohs and talked for an hour.
"We commiserated," Cardin said later. "This is the time of year when neither one of us can make a move without someone coming up and complaining about the other house. Every time I go out in the hall I've got 10 senators coming at me saying, 'When are your guys going to move my bill?' It's tradition."
There are many traditions associated with the Maryland legislature, but none is more sacred than the final week's name-calling and bill-holding. Monday at midnight, the session will end amidst charges that important bills are being killed because of personal animosities and that the Senate is forcing the House to do its dirty work. And, as always, each side has accused the other of footdragging.
Five days ago, during a Senate filibuster, Sen. James C. Simpson (D-St. Mary's) rose on the Senate floor and said, "Why stop the filibuster? The House isn't ever going to move any of our bills anyway."
"It's like a rattlesnake and a cobra in the same basket fighting to see who will get to the top," said Sen. Howard A. Denis (R-Montgomery). "For most of the session we all go along pretending the other house doesn't exist. Then all of a sudden we look up and boom!--there are the other guys."
An example: For years now, Denis and Sen. Arthur Dorman (D-Prince George's) have been trying to get legislation passed involving limits on truck lengths and weights. This year their annual bill reached the House Environmental Matters committee, whose chairman is Del. Torrey C. Brown (D-Baltimore). The bill reached the committee and has stayed right there. No hearing, no vote in committee.
"People have been trying to pass that bill for 20 years," Brown said. "It's a dead issue."
When word got back to Dorman that Brown was not going to move the bill, he had an answer: when two of Brown's bills came to the Senate floor for final passage, Dorman asked that consideration of them be delayed. His fellow senators, knowing why he was asking for the delay, granted it. The bills still have not returned to the floor.
"And they won't," Dorman said, "until Torrey comes and talks to me. I think he at least owes us that courtesy. When he comes and talks to me, I'll let go of the bills."
Brown: "He can hold onto every last bill I ever file and I won't talk to him about it. I swear they created this issue just to have an excuse to hold up bills."
Bill holding in the final week of the session is common practice on both sides of the State House. Tempers are short, people are tired and most people look to get even when they suffer a setback.
"It's like a sibling rivalry," said Del. O. James Lighthizer (D-Anne Arundel), one of the more successful House freshman. "Everybody wants to get his way and when the end gets near, anybody who gets in your way becomes your enemy."
A personal confrontation at night may affect professional judgment in the morning. Last Wednesday night, a senator and a delegate had a heated exchange in one of the local watering holes. Angry words were exchanged and it appeared the two men might trade punches before others stepped in. As the senator walked away, the delegate said, "First thing tomorrow morning, I'm going to see if he has any bills in my committee. If he does, they're dead."
The next morning the delegate checked. To his disappointment, the senator had no bills in his committee.
"The most amazing thing is that we get as much done as we do," said Clark, whose laid-back manner as Senate president is a direct contrast to Cardin's snap-to, move-it-along style in the House. "The House and Senate have got to be very different because of the numbers (141 members in the House to 47 in the Senate) and the rules."
The major written rule that makes the two houses different is the filibuster. Clark always must be wary of it in the Senate and Cardin need not worry about it in the House. But there is an unwritten rule that makes the two houses markedly different: in the House, the committees are considered inviolate. The same isn't so in the Senate.
"That's the first thing I noticed," said Sen. Frank J. Komenda, who moved from the House to the Senate this year. "I was amazed to sit on the Senate floor and hear a committee vice chairman argue with his chairman about a bill. In the House, when a committee moved a bill, that's the end of it, unless something extraordinary happens."
Because the Senate's committees are weaker than those in the House, bad bills often get to the Senate floor. "In the Senate, guys don't like to insult sponsors by killing their bills," said Del. Timothy F. Maloney (D-Prince George's). "They'll pass bills out of committee and hope they get killed on the floor. If they don't, then they count on the House to kill the bill."
For example, last week the Senate brought a bill to the floor that would have allowed for confiscation of a person's car if he was caught driving without a license because of a drunk-driving charge. Drunk driving has been a major issue this year, but many Senators questioned both the constitutionality and the practicality of this bill.
It passed, 29 to 18.
"A lot of guys just took a free ride to show they want to be tough on drunk drivers," said Sen. Harry J. McGuirk (D-Baltimore). "They know the bill will die in the house."
In fact, moments before the vote, Del. Joseph E. Owens, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, the one that would get the bill, sat in the Senate lounge. Several senators walked by Owens and said, "You'll kill that one, won't you, Joe?"
Reassured by Owens that the bill would indeed be killed in the House (it was by a 15-to-4 vote), the senators proceeded to vote for the bill.
"That's the kind of thinking that has put some very bad laws on the book in this state," Cardin said.
"It's that kind of thing that guys on this side really resent," said Del. Luiz Simmons (R-Montgomery). "The senators often count on the House to do their dirty work for them, then they go around acting as if they're somehow better than we are."
Technically, the two houses are supposed to be equal. The pay is the same, but there the equality ends. No fewer than 17 delegates are considering running for the Senate this year.
"Right or wrong, there's just more prestige attacked to being a senator," said Sen. Thomas P. O'Reilly (D-Prince George's). "Just the title, 'senator,' has prestige."
Clark smiles when people complain about the Senate. "The Senate of Maryland is a strange animal," he said. "Sometimes it moves right along and sometimes it comes to a complete halt. You just can't try to figure it out."
Especially on Day 90 of a 90-day legislative session. "We're doing well so far this year," Cardin said. "None of my members have demanded that we recess until the blankety-blank Senate starts working. And no one's hit anyone."