Josh Kurtz: A Letter to Speaker Busch

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By: Josh Kurtz 

Dear Mr. Speaker:

Well, it looks as if two of your old warhorses, Joe Vallario and Sheila Hixson, will be coming back next year, barring any stunning developments in November.

It’s time to take away their gavels.

Vallario has been chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Hixson has run Ways and Means, since 1993. These committees are crying out for new leadership – and have become emblematic of what ails the entire House.

It’s not that Vallario and Hixson are untalented legislators. In fact, at the ages of 77 and 81, respectively, they remain among the wiliest in Annapolis, as you well know.

But let’s face it, Mr. Speaker – your leadership team, however effective it may be, is stagnating, and that’s affecting the overall tenor and morale of the House.

You have been speaker for a dozen years now; Adrienne Jones has been speaker pro tem, and Kumar Barve has been majority leader, for just as long. Your committee leaders are also quite seasoned. Dereck Davis took over for you as chairman of the Economic Matters Committee as soon as you became speaker; Maggie McIntosh has been atop Environmental Matters for a dozen years, following two years as Cas Taylor’s majority leader.

Norm Conway has been the chamber’s top appropriator since Pete Rawlings died in late 2003, and Pete Hammen has been chairman of Health and Government Operations since John Hurson was lured away by the sweet smells of the cosmetics industry in 2005.

Once again, it’s not that any of them aren’t up to the job; they’re all very able legislators. But something’s got to give.

The House could see as many as 50 new members come 2015. That’s great – the new blood will be welcome, and many of the newcomers seem very promising.

But that also presents a management challenge to you, Mr. Speaker. The farther away you get from your initial ascension to the top job, the harder it is to command loyalty from the troops. How much fealty do you expect from these incoming freshmen? How many will feel like they owe you?

The House is an unruly place as it is, and it’s hard to keep everybody happy. The freshmen will do what the freshmen will do. But your bigger headache, Mr. Speaker, may be dealing with the restlessness of the able and ambitious lawmakers who’ve been around for a few terms and see few avenues for upward mobility. You know who we’re talking about: People like Anne Kaiser and John Bohanan and Jay Walker and Bill Frick. What are you doing to maximize their talents and keep them motivated?

Think of some of the talent voluntarily walking out your door this year, Mr. Speaker. Could some of those defections have been prevented if these promising lawmakers had more options for advancement in your chamber?

You don’t need to jettison your entire leadership team. It has too much experience and ability. But for the sake of the chamber, some change near the top needs to be made – and only you, Mr. Speaker, have the power to make it happen.

It’s said that a year is an eternity in politics; if so, then legislative service ought to be measured in dog years. Given the fact that each has been a committee chairman for 21 years, Vallario and Hixson seem like the logical choices to step aside and help break the leadership logjam.

You don’t have to excommunicate them altogether. In the House of Representatives, Democrats and Republicans alike have bestowed “chairman emeritus” titles on former chairmen of certain committees who, for one reason or another, are no longer the choice of the leaders – or the rank and file – to retain their gavels. The power of the people who hold these emeritus positions has necessarily been diminished, but they still have special status on their committees and enjoy certain benefits of seniority.

Heck, even in the Vatican, for the first time in 1,500 years, there is a pope emeritus. So why not try it in Annapolis?

Have Hixson and Vallario lost a step or two in the past few years? Hixson frequently turns to underlings to manage sensitive pieces of legislation on the House floor. And Vallario was taken by surprise last session when his colleagues, led by the Legislative Black Caucus, petitioned the marijuana decriminalization bill to the House floor after his committee had resisted it.

And about Vallario – Mr. Speaker, what do you make of the fact that so many women’s groups, that people who work with victims of domestic violence, that traffic safety advocates, are consistently critical of his performance and his agenda? Doesn’t that criticism reflect on the entire institution – and ultimately, on you? Doesn’t Vallario’s legacy in a sense become part of yours?

No one, Mr. Speaker, questions your sense of fairness or your devotion to the House – and to all 141 of its members. You’ve been unfailingly loyal to your leadership team – and it’s an undeniably solid one.

But change is inevitable – and healthy – for any institution. In your House, Mr. Speaker, it ought to start with you replacing Sheila Hixson and Joe Vallario.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.