Posted: Jan. 30, 2007
WHO'S IN CHARGE HERE?
By Celia Cohen
There seems to be no grander stand than the one being taken by state Rep. Gregory F. Lavelle, backed up by cheer leading from some of his fellow Republicans.
Lavelle, first elected in 2000, has been the sort of legislator that the Republican Party typically mints in Brandywine Hundred, an earnest and middle-of-the-pack lawmaker --up until now, when he stumbled into stardom with a bill that was as equally surprising to break out of blandness.
The measure, House Bill 4, proposed that the state budget bill be introduced at least three legislative workdays before the end of the session on June 30, and the bond bill determining the construction budget be introduced at least two workdays out, so people would be given some time to unearth anything rotten buried in the fine print.
This legislation had "boredom" written all over it. The bill probably was impractical, adding extra deadlines to the pressures of time and sheer workload under which the Joint Finance Committee and Bond Bill Committee already labor during the end-of-session crush.
The measure was trotted out as part of a package of bills that Republican Majority Leader Wayne A. Smith wanted to pass in January. It seemed certain to be approved last Wednesday amid good-government piety and back-patting by the Republicans, who control the state House of Representatives by 23-18, and then sent to the state Senate, where the majority Democrats would have a good laugh and shove it in a drawer, never to be seen again.
Then House Bill 4 failed, and there was an eruption of hysteria usually reserved for mothers who eat their babies or legislation that raises the General Assembly's pay.
Lavelle regarded the House roll call. Not one Democrat had voted for his bill. What came next was a geyser of government-by-press-release from Republicans.
Lavelle sniped in one offering, "This shows the stripes of the Democrats who campaigned to change how government works." David M. Burris, the incoming Sussex County Republican chair, flapped out an electronic petition in favor of the bill, and others chimed in, too.
Lavelle came down particularly hard on state Rep. John Kowalko, a newly elected Democrat whose Web site brags about an escapade when he was a mere civilian and got himself escorted out of a legislative hearing for wearing a gag. People like that get what they deserve.
Republicans are hardly alone in their tactic of gushing press releases. The Democrats were hyperventilating last week as President George W. Bush came to Wilmington. They topped out with one that blared, "Photo-op Presidency Comes to City Devastated by Federal Budget Cuts."
Still, the barrage for House Bill 4 was notable for its clever misdirection. Democratic votes did not defeat Lavelle's legislation. Republican votes did.
The Republicans run the chamber. They do not need the Democrats to pass simple-majority bills, as this one was. Lavelle lost five votes on his own side of the aisle. State Rep. William A. Oberle Jr., the Bond Bill Committee co-chair, abstained, state Reps. Vincent A. Lofink and Pamela J. Thornburg voted "no," and state Reps. John C. Atkins and J. Benjamin Ewing were absent.
The roll call exposed how shaky the Republican majority is. It showed where the real power in the House is -- in the adroit hands of Bill Oberle and Democratic Minority Leader Robert F. Gilligan.
Oberle, who is no ally of Majority Leader Wayne Smith, proved he can undercut Smith at will, even on measures that Smith wants the caucus to be solidly behind, while Gilligan flashed the influence that comes from keeping his side united.
It underscored that nothing is going to happen in the House without a say-so from Oberle and Gilligan, a veteran pair of wily legislators. Oberle's district is south of Newark, Gilligan's in the Delcastle area. Between them, they have spent 64 years in Legislative Hall, and it shows.
The two insist, scouts' honor, that they did not set out, either collectively or individually, to sink House Bill 4. They did not cause the roll call, it simply was an effect of the fault lines in the chamber.
"There was nothing pre-planned on the vote. There wasn't a great political conspiracy," Oberle said.
"They [Republicans] didn't need us," Gilligan said. "We did not take a caucus position."
Lavelle, who probably should have counted the votes on his own side more carefully, decided it was better not to point fingers at his fellow Republicans but to blame the Democrats.
"At this point, yes," Lavelle conceded cheerfully. There is something to be said for a little humor and honesty.
Meanwhile, the Republicans, who have been losing House seats in recent elections, are in danger of falling into the minority in 2008, and it looks as though they are practicing for it already.
Losing legislative battles and blaming the other side? It is what minorities do.