When the joint resolution on the Equal Rights Amendment was called up for a vote on the floor of the House of Delegates in Annapolis last week, everyone was poised for a tough debate.
Supporters had gathered reams of papers and statistics about the U.S. Constitution and discrimination to document why this largely symbolic measure, calling on Congress to reenact the federal Equal Rights Amendment, should be passed.
Reporters, often lackadaisical in attending votes on resolutions, were seated early in the school chairs assigned to the media near the speaker's podium. As the clerk called out the title of the resolution and House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin asked for a roll call, cameramen quickly positioned themselves in the aisle and waited.
The resolution came up and passed, 113-to-12, in silence.
"That was surprising," said Del. Helen Koss (D--Montgomery), who had carefully prepared for a hot argument. "I guess they the opponents knew the votes were there."
But, it is not just the ERA resolution that has been greeted with such silence. As the General Assembly headed toward its halfway mark Friday, there have been no debates in the House of Delegates and few in the generally more loquacious Senate.
The House, which a year ago at this time had passed several major pieces of legislation, has met for less than an half-hour nearly every day.
A discussion that occurred last Friday is typical of the "debate" of late.
"Mr. Speaker," Del. William Horne (D-Talbot) rose to say, microphone in hand. "Today is a very special day. It is the birthday of an Eastern Shore delegate. Unfortunately he is so engrossed on the telephone that he hasn't noticed what I'm saying. The birthday is of our own minority whip, Del. Lewis Riley (R-Lower Shore)."
At which the House rose to applaud.
A few days before, the message of good news had come from the Prince George's contingent, which fills the back rows of the House chamber. Then, Del. Charles J. Ryan rose to congratulate a new member.
The Senate, which so far has argued over the method for placing presidential contenders on the state's ballot, has spent much of its time similarly. Its sessions have run longer, however, in part because of occasional discourses on procedure and protocol by the new Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg.
What is happening here, just a few months after the last session ended with filibusters (mostly on the Senate side) and great debate?
Cardin attributes the quietude to the large number of new legislators learning the systems of both houses, as well as the late introduction of much of this session's major legislation. Pension, banking, racing and jobs bills all were introduced just a week or so ago, which means it will be another three weeks or more before any one of them hits the floor.
But the best explanation may have been offered by Del. Gerard Devlin (D- Prince George's) as the ERA resolution galloped to passage: "The gadflies are gone."
Specifically, he meant that former delegates Charles J. Blumenthal (D-Prince George's) and Robin Ficker (R-Montgomery) were not reelected.
Blumenthal could be counted on to rise from his seat several times a week to say "Mr. Speaker." With regularity he would fire procedural questions at Cardin, offer amendments, and give seemingly endless speeches on issues that captured his attention.
Ficker, with equal regularity, would empty the House chamber with long-winded attacks on the leadership and his efforts to force long-dead bills onto the floor using technical challenges others would ignore.
Both men sparked debate but at some cost to themselves: Neither was beloved by their colleagues, and the debate they created often was about themselves.
The new delegates have heard about the "gadflies"--usually in unflattering terms--from those who were reelected. The result is that many of the new delegates, who seem more eager than their predecessors to march in step with the powers that be, have good reason to believe that standing up and debating may not help one's reputation.
As new delegate William Clark (R-Cecil) put it after sitting through five weeks of the legislature without saying one word on the floor: "I would have to be really incensed to say anything. I'm abundantly aware that I have to get along with 140 people and right now I just want to learn."