The 2021 Maryland General Assembly seems surreal, devoid seemingly of its normally feverish pace. Its Covid-19 restrictions have drastically reduced public input and intense, one-on-one lobbying.
One Maryland legislator remarked about the eerie quiet, enabling him to go back and forth to the restroom without being inundated with pleas and advocacy. Just imagine carrying out the people’s business without a slew of engaged citizens hovering over you. Introverts may prefer it.
While some may bemoan the influence of clever lobbyists, others may consider lobbying a necessary evil practiced by well-paid advocates for any number of causes, some in favor of pending bills, some determined to kill legislation harmful to their clients. Annapolis is nothing but a cacophony of opposing interests and motives. It is noisy, messy and integral to civil engagement.
A family member representing an industry under legislative scrutiny is coping with Covid constrictions, compelled to meet one-on-one with state delegates via zoom and quick meetings. I suspect that the upside is that she does need not travel to Annapolis and wait endlessly for a bill to be heard.
So, what is bugging me? It is my same old bugaboo: what happens to democracy if public input is limited for good and sufficient reason due to a raging and dangerous pandemic?
There are no public hearings except as executed on the ubiquitous zoom platform. If an industry wants to speak with a legislator, it is by zoom. Input is electronic.
Personal rapport is restricted to a shared screen. You are trusted as a worthy messenger or not, based on your zoom presence.
Some may say that my concerns are meaningless. We are living in a whole new world dictated by minimizing exposure to a nasty virus. I get that.
But public hearings, hallway encounters and snug office visits shine a light of accountability on our public officials. They must perform responsibly and sensibly in front of an audience, though some choose to exhibit bad behavior to gain attention and publicity. At least, however, the public through the lens and conduit of the media can judge for themselves if a public figure warrants respect or repulsion.
Time will tell if legislation passed during the Covid-infested years of 2020 and 2021 can withstand objective analysis in coming years. Will lack of public input and accountability produce flawed and damaging legislative policy that may take years to repair?
It may seem that I do not trust our elected leaders minus the sometime unforgiving glare of public oversight. Actually, I do. I simply trust more the often-unpredictable reactions of the fickle public square.
When the Maryland General Assembly adjourns without its normal fanfare in three weeks, some will be happy with the results, some will not and some will be happy that our legislators can cause no more mischief (not illegally, of course).
I for one will hope that an understandable lack of democratic input will be of little consequence when legislator historians judge the efficacy of Maryland’s 2020 and 2021 legislatures.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.