by Gordon C. Morse
Forty years ago, I wrote an essay for The Richmond Times-Dispatch — “The Long and the Short of the Assembly” — that noted a “a growing sense that the Virginia General Assembly is not performing satisfactorily,” that it had “devolved into an unhappy spectacle.”
Revisiting that essay recently immediately gave me a headache. The question then and now is whether Virginia’s process for considering proposed new laws or enacting changes to existing law provides sufficient opportunity for the public, as well as the legislative membership, to understand what’s happening at any given moment and, at some level, participate?
It has long been the habit in Virginia – based on 18th, even 17th century inclinations – to simply get lawmaking done and as quickly as possible. Having sufficient public “access” was not a major hang-up.
To put it another way, doing legislative work in Virginia was always regarded as important, but there were always other, equally important, things to do. Growing and harvesting crops, for instance. Well into the middle of the 20th century, Virginia remained an agrarian economic/social construct. The legislative calendar reflected that reality.
That changed (sort of) with the 1970 revisions the Virginia Constitution and there’s no need to dive deep on that subject here, except to say that there was, even then, lingering doubts about the efficacy of unrestrained democratic institutions. This concern was most dramatically expressed when, during the 1901-02 Virginia Constitutional Convention, a proposal to hold the General Assembly to a single meeting once every four years was only narrowly defeated.
But a growing state has growing needs — as my prior boss Gov. Gerald L. Baliles once liked to put it — and the remedies enacted more than 70 years ago, which go to the specific lawmaking structure, may no longer be adequate. (That’s an understatement.) Continue reading