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Do the right thing even if it hurts

I know it’s the right thing to do, a member of the House of Delegates told me 25 years ago on the eve of a critically important vote, but I like it down here.

A yes vote — the right one, he feared — would cost him his seat in that year’s election.

With the state’s economic health hanging in the balance, he voted no on a pension reform bill as important to Maryland and as fiercely lobbied as the national health care reform bill passed last Sunday in Washington.

Many members of the U.S. House of Representatives were similarly conflicted in recent weeks and months. Some, to be sure, thought the bill did not deserve their support. Others, like the Maryland delegate, liked being in Washington.

What happened in both cities, 25 years ago and last week, have striking, instructive parallels: the public welfare, the real purpose of legislators, political risk-taking and high drama, among others.

For President Barack Obama the fate of his presidency might have been decided by the defeat of a measure he had chosen to support with the full might of his office — even if, as critics say, it was belated support. But he might have elected to avoid a difficult fight.

As it is, he can relish a win that probably exceeds the drama of March Madness. No mere basketball game, of course, the pressure to win for 32 million uninsured Americans was incalculably greater.

No idle threat

In Maryland, the issue 25 years ago was reform of an unaffordable pension for state employees and teachers. They had won concessions that Wall Street called ruinous — an uncapped cost-of-living escalator in a system that was less than 25 percent funded. If the state was to keep its valuable credit rating — Triple A — it would have to cut benefits sharply.

In the matter of health care reform, President Obama warned that the rapidly rising cost of the system we have is a threat to our economic well-being if not throttled back.

In Annapolis 25 years ago, delegates were told a yes vote on pension reform would cost them their seats. The very powerful teachers union would make them pay. Indeed, the teachers had shown their muscle in previous elections. It was no idle threat.

In Washington this year, House members faced the prospect of concerted opposition from tea party activists and others in this election year. The opponents’ clout, though untested for the most part, has been foreshadowed in Massachusetts, where a Republican defeated the Democratic candidate for the seat held by Ted Kennedy.

In Maryland this year, freshman Rep. Frank Kratovil faces a rematch with ultraconservative Republican Andy Harris. Harris is the favorite in the conservative First District, though no one can say how his act will play two years after he displayed his brand of rough campaigning in 2008.

Kratovil was among those endangered Democrats allowed to defy his party’s and his president’s — and some would say his country’s — interests. Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, one of Kratovil’s mentors, is also the House majority leader and master vote counter.

Reform nearly died

In 1984 Annapolis, the holdout delegate who voted no on pension reform had no such license. He voted no even though every vote was needed. The reform measure nearly died in a 70-70 tie. A number of exertions and favors were needed to pass the bill on reconsideration, a parliamentary device that can bring a bill back to life.

As the reluctant delegate said, those who voted for the bill put their political careers in jeopardy. One of the pension reform leaders, Robert Neall of Anne Arundel County, ran for the House of Representatives and lost in a race where teachers worked hard to defeat him.

Neall was among a small cadre of legislators who saw what they called the “hard” vote as a measure of their mettle. They were there to do the right thing, to trust the voters to understand their decisions — not to save their seats.

Over the next 20 years or so in Maryland, the pension system grew stronger. At one point, before the current recession, it was more than 100 percent funded — capable, that is, of meeting its obligations to teachers and state workers.

In the matter of health care, President Obama and those who voted with him were taking big risks. With such a complex system, no one can know if savings are possible or if 32 million newly insured Americans can be cared for effectively.

But, as it was 25 years ago in Annapolis, sometimes risk is the name of the game.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. He is the author of “Here Lies Jim Crow: Civil Rights in Maryland.” His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.