Every year, the General Assembly considers between 2,000 and 3,000 pieces of legislation. It is impossible for the 188 legislators to be conversant with all of them. It is difficult enough, in fact, for lawmakers to stay abreast of the hundreds of bills in their own committees.
But every year, there are two or three or four major issues that dominate a session -- such as the pension bill in 1984 -- whose importance tend to shape the proceedings. Surely most legislators are familiar with those big bills.
Last Friday, the House of Delegates overwhelmingly approved seven bills introduced by Gov. Harry Hughes aimed at curbing the cost of health care in Maryland. The health care issue was debated for several months by a gubernatorial commission, studied at length by two legislative committees, explained numerous times by the Hughes administration and legislative leadership and written about endlessly in the press.
It has so dominated the legislature that 1985 was being called the "health session" many months in advance.
Yet when the package of legislation hit the House floor last week, there was virtually no debate. The bills, as molded by a working group of the Environmental Matters Committee, never changed as the legislation moved through full committee and was approved swiftly by the full House. The House might as well have been voting on motherhood.
If conversations with a dozen delegates in the House lounge Monday night are a fair indication, the reason is simple: Many legislators lacked even a basic understanding of what the bills would do.
Those legislators were asked some simple questions: What do the seven bills do, and what is the Medicare waiver that they are supposed to preserve?
Though lawmakers had a general idea that the bills are intended to slow the rise in health care costs, few could name the specific provisions.
The legislation would impose a moratorium on hospital construction, give the governor authority to implement future moratoriums and make doctors seek state approval before buying expensive equipment. It would encourage and force hospitals to shut down unneeded beds, require utilization reviews by hospitals and regulate health insurance plans that direct patients to low-cost hospitals.
Even fewer legislators could identify the waiver as the state exemption from federal Medicare rates that is the underpinning of the Maryland's rate-setting system.
Here are some of the answers from lawmakers asked about the bills:
* Del. Tom Mooney (D-Prince George's): "Oh, God. You caught me with my pants down. I can tell you who's going to be in the [NCAA basketball championship] final four easier. What can I say?"
* Del. Paul Weisengoff (D-Baltimore): "Why should I give you the details? Who cares? What the hell do we have to know the details for? They're not going to pass the Senate the way we sent them over anyway. When the Senate sends them back we'll get down to the serious work. It's just like racing bills. No one knows what's in the racing bills either."
* Del. Gerald Curran (D-Baltimore), vice chairman of the Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee: "What kind of a question is that? I don't know what the waiver is. I'm not familiar with that issue. What kind of article are you writing? I don't like the drift of this."
* Del. Patricia Sher (D-Montgomery): "I've spent the past two weeks working on abortion. Ask me next week when I've caught up on my reading."
* Del. Tyras Athey (D-Anne Arundel), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee: "Let me think a little bit. The one I'm familiar with is the one that certifies some hospitals are going to close -- the insurance one . . . . The way I understand the waiver is if you stay within certain prices, you receive some aid from the federal government and if you don't you lose it."
* Del. R. Terry Connelly (D-Baltimore County): "Ah . . . damn. One of them sets up a board or commission or whatever, I guess for approval of some kind of rates. Another set a cap on what hospitals could charge on a year-basis kind of thing. I think there was one more, wasn't there? I don't know exactly what the hell it was."
If there is a lesson in this, it is that the committee system so prized by House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin and his lieutenants encourages legislative ignorance. Committees have enormous power over their subject matter, and legislators put perhaps too much trust in the work of their colleagues on other committees.
Under the leadership system, bills that die in committee generally stay dead, and bills that pass are guaranteed the votes of all committee members on preliminary votes, plus those of the 20-odd members of leadership.
Thus, any bill that gets out of committee almost automatically has about 45 votes of the 71 needed for passage. There is little incentive to debate or to fight the prevailing winds, especially when the leadership is pushing the legislation, as it was on the health care package.
Informed of the results of this informal poll, Cardin expressed surprise. "That's amazing," he said. "I went to every delegation, we went over every point in hideous detail and the questions were very perceptive."
But, added Cardin in defense of the House, "you have to have a little confidence in the system."
Confidence is one thing, but blind faith is another.