It was a typical day for Republicans on the floor of the House of Delegates on Tuesday.
GOP lawmakers launched lengthy debates on gun regulations, transportation funding and tax breaks for retirees, only to see the latter two discussions lead to predictably resounding defeats as they attempted to add amendments to Democratic bills. The third debate, on guns, will continue into Wednesday, but is likely to result in the same lop-sided futility.
For many Republicans, it was all in a day’s work — a chance to shine a spotlight on what they characterize as Democratic overreach and to put Democrats on record supporting policies that the GOP will invariably use on the campaign trail and in fundraising appeals.
But freshman Republican Del. Christopher Eric Bouchat of Carroll County is suggesting that such a strategy has its limits. He asserts that Republicans have become too performative during floor debates in the House and that they run the risk of obsolescence in a chamber where they are badly outnumbered.
That lament has angered several of Bouchat’s more senior colleagues — who characterize his stance as a form of surrender.
The strategic debate was a topic of heated discussion in the weekly House Republican Caucus meeting Tuesday morning and could come up again when the caucus gathers Wednesday morning. To some Republicans, the messenger was just as objectionable as the message.
The internecine conflict started when Bouchat, a conservative who arrived in Annapolis this year after serving a term on the Carroll County Board of Commissioners, sent a letter to his GOP colleagues last week, questioning their tactics and urging them to “look inward for corrective measures that increase our future success rates.”
Bouchat, a self-proclaimed political nerd and one of the original Republican plaintiffs who challenged Maryland’s congressional district map in court following the 2010 Census, observed that many of his fellow Republicans have become “show horses” on the House floor, offering meaningless messaging amendments to bills that have no chance of passing or of influencing the broader State House debate.
“We as a party have limited resources with 39 proverbial troops opposing 102 troops in military terms,” Bouchat wrote in the letter. “Any individual with officer training in combat will tell you it is a waste of resources, energy, and life to continuously execute a frontal assault upon a superior entrenched force, yet that is what we keep doing only to be repulsed and laughed at…If we were a military unit our commander would be court martialed. I feel we are stuck in a perpetual loop of failure.”
In an interview, Bouchat said he believes that committees, rather than the House floor, are the appropriate venues for lengthy debates over legislation. “Once it’s out of committee, it’s a done deal.”
He added that by rhetorically torching Democratic proposals, Republicans are making it more difficult to work with their colleagues who control the agenda and the purse strings in Annapolis. Democrats, he noted, “won a clear and decisive victory” in Maryland last fall.
Bouchat, who owns a welding and metal fabricating business, likens the situation to a workplace: An employee who routinely irritates the boss isn’t going to be able to credibly ask for a raise. And 95% of the Republican attempts to amend a bill, he calculated, are defeated.
“If I had an employee who was successful 5% of the time, I’d fire them,” Bouchat said.
The GOP intramural debate comes as both houses of the General Assembly become steadily more polarized. While the level of partisan rancor isn’t anywhere near what it is on Capitol Hill, the fact is that while conservative Democrats held sway for decades in Annapolis until very recently, the Democratic caucuses have moved steadily to the left over the last few elections, while the Republican caucuses have moved to the right. True ideological moderates in both parties are hard to come by.
And with supermajorities in both chambers, Democrats can largely move their agenda without paying the Republicans much heed — especially with Democrat Wes Moore now serving as governor.
Del. Jheanelle Wilkins (D-Montgomery), who served until recently as House parliamentarian and fought fiercely with Republicans over procedural and ideological questions during the past few legislative sessions, said House Democrats are still willing to work with their GOP colleagues.
“We are bringing out Republican bills and they’re gaining support, especially when the [Republican] members are working to build relationships,” she said.
According to several House Republicans, Bouchat’s letter became part of the agenda during the 75-minute GOP caucus meeting Tuesday.
“I would say we had a lively discussion with respect to people’s ideas and how best to serve our constituents and our state,” said House Minority Leader Jason Buckel (R-Allegany), as lawmakers walked from the caucus to the House floor session. “I would suggest that [Bouchat’s letter] was not well-received by his colleagues, but there won’t be any consequences” for the freshman lawmaker.
Buckel said House Republicans take different approaches when it comes to floor debates: Some speak and offer amendments frequently, others do so occasionally, and many choose to stay silent.
“There’s no right strategy,” he said. “Everybody is going to do what they think is best for their communities and the state.”
In interviews as the caucus meeting ended, two firebrand conservatives in the GOP caucus, Del. Matt Morgan (R-St. Mary’s) and Del. Mark Fisher (R-Calvert), suggested that Bouchat’s strategy essentially amounted to surrender.
“I don’t think the Republicans should be waving the white flag,” Morgan said.
Fisher added: “You have three things down here: Your voice, your vote and your reputation. He wants to give up his voice.”
Del. Carl Anderton (R-Lower Shore), who works more closely with Democrats than many of his colleagues, took issue with both the substance and tone of Bouchat’s letter.
“You just got here,” Anderton said. “You’re calling people who’ve been here a lot longer losers when you haven’t really seen the process yet?”
GOP strategy on display
During a three-hour House session Tuesday, as lawmakers cycled through dozens of bills, Republicans peppered Democratic floor leaders with questions on several measures. Most dramatically, Republicans used a bill by Del. Mark Edelson (D-Baltimore City) that would change the way fare hikes are calculated for Maryland Transit Administration bus and rail service, to remove a provision in state law that raises the state gasoline tax annually based on the Consumer Price Index. The amendment, introduced by Morgan, was hotly debated for about 20 minutes.
Several Republicans argued that the legislature shouldn’t consider a bill that effectively decouples transit fares from the inflation rate without doing the same for motorists — especially during a period of persistent inflation, when a significant gas tax hike on July 1 is inevitable. Morgan estimated that the state could be collecting an additional $62.4 million in gas taxes then.
“We talk a lot about equity in this body,” Buckel said. “Equity to me means fairness. It means treating people in an equally situated way.”
Fisher warned that tax increases are “crushing the middle class in Maryland.”
Defending Edelson’s bill, Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery), the chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and the Environment, said transit fares and gas taxes are significantly different, because the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, which is replenished with gas tax revenues, is so big.
“It’s really not comparable to what we’re talking about in terms of scale,” he said, adding that the trust fund could be severely depleted and major transportation projects jeopardized if the amendment went through.
But Del. Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) boiled the debate down to its political essence.
“Yes,” Morgan replied. “And a vote against this amendment says I support a $62.4 million tax increase.”
Nevertheless, the amendment failed on a 38-90 vote. Two Democrats — Dels. Brian Crosby (St. Mary’s) and Chou Wu (D-Howard) voted for it. Bouchat was the lone Republican to vote against it. He said in an interview that the floor debate essentially illustrated everything he had written about in his letter to colleagues.
Urging Republicans to be more outspoken
But the day’s drama did not end there. About an hour after the floor session came to an end Tuesday, six of the most vocal conservatives in the House Republican Caucus — Fisher, Morgan, Szeliga and Dels. Lauren Arikan (Harford), Brian Chisholm (Anne Arundel) and Robin Grammer (Baltimore County) — issued a statement criticizing Bouchat and rebutting the points in his missive. Arikan, who serves with Bouchat on the Judiciary Committee and on the Criminal Law subcommittee, said she “cannot recall a single time he spoke up in an attempt to impact the legislation in our committee.”
The statement blasted Bouchat for voting against Morgan’s amendment on the gasoline tax, saying he “failed a basic litmus test of Conservatism.”
The six Republicans also took their GOP colleagues to task for not speaking up more on the House floor.
“It deeply concerns us that this erroneous concept of rarely or never standing on the floor to articulate Republican and Conservative ideals appears to be the new accepted norm,” they wrote.
The lawmakers argued that the House GOP hit its modern-era high water mark — 50 seats in the 141-member chamber — after speaking out against Democratic taxes and spending during the 2014 election.
“Our communities and voters did not send us here to be the handmaidens of the Maryland Democrat Party,” the six Republicans wrote. “We must stand in solidarity and combat the Left’s ever-growing radical agenda. Our unified vision, unwavering stance, and proactive leadership will allow us to maintain our values against those who seek to destroy them.”
Bouchat said he agreed that Republicans should vigorously contest the Democrats in the next legislative elections, which are 3 1/2 years away, and that political opportunities may present themselves for the GOP then. But for now, he said, “we need to stop annoying them.”
By Josh Kurtz