The Dernogalizer

March 24, 2009

State Politics Column

Filed under: Dernoga,MD Politics — Matt Dernoga @ 8:32 pm
Tags: , ,

I have a column out today summarizing the workings of Annapolis, what I think is wrong with it, and how to make advocacy more effective.  I recognize that I had to be general for a lot of this, since I only have a 550 word limit I can only explain so much in a way that the average college student can understand.  Additionally, I find it interesting that there is a bill in Annapolis right now which addresses the problem of campaign finance that I highlight at the end of my column.  Unfortunately, I’m of the opinion the bill is very watered down,and while it should pass, I don’t think it will have a meaningful impact.  Enjoy!

State politics: Moving the movers and shakers

Matt Dernoga

A common thread I see regarding many meaningful state bills students at the university have advocated over the years is that either they end up failing or they become so watered down that any progress made can only be measured in baby steps.

This is no different in states all over the country. The bold reforms activists push require massive grassroots efforts that fail far more often than they succeed because of political gridlock we often don’t understand. The state’s legislative body is a good case study for why this occurs.

In Annapolis, the General Assembly has a state Senate and House of Delegates. Each of the 47 districts has one senator and three delegates. This means if you’re a state senator, you’re one of 47. If you’re a delegate, you’re one of 141.

The ruling parties in the senate and house elect leaders who are called the Senate President and House Speaker. These leaders take the senators and delegates, and put them on committees that specialize in certain kinds of issues. If a bill gets the majority vote by members on its committee, it goes before either the entire house or senate for a vote.

Each committee has a chair appointed by the leader of the senate or house. The chair decides if a bill is voted on at all. That’s power. If the chair pisses off the leader, the chair could be demoted or moved to a different committee – so chairs usually only think for themselves when it’s okay with the leadership.

Some committees have more power than others. The Appropriations Committee makes the multi-billion dollar budget. Ways and Means sets the taxes. Legislators want to be on these committees and bring cash back home to please constituents. Say I’m on Appropriations and make a lot of noise about an issue against the wishes of the House Speaker. I get sent back to the Judiciary Committee to debate the death penalty to no end.

This is how the system is gamed. If you march in line with the leadership, you get on the right committees and move up to chair. If you think for yourself too often, you’ll end up on the Environment Committee arguing about a program that Appropriations has to fund anyway. The result is politicians who actually take principled stands and think for themselves are far and few between. Worse, they are neutralized by the leadership.

What we have in Annapolis is a handful of committee chairs in each chamber asking the senate and house leadership which bills to allow a vote on. As a result, meaningful legislation usually only moves when our Senate President and House Speaker decide they want it to. Special interest groups know this. All they have to do is target their money and lobbying power into a handful of decision makers. But I’m afraid students don’t understand. And if they do, they lack the cash to sway the real decision makers.

There’s no easy fix. Changing either the campaign finance system or the power structure of the General Assembly is a heavy lift when the people running it don’t want that change. Ultimately, if enough people got behind these kinds of reforms, they would pass. Politicians will only side with political expediency so long as it doesn’t threaten them in the polls. Perhaps voters should do a bit of targeting of our own.

Matt Dernoga is a junior government and politics major. He can be reached at mdernoga@umd.edu

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