Fix the Structurally Broken Virginia Government

by James C. Sherlock

Great Seal of Virginia

When offered a choice of reasons for failures of large scale government actions, your first choice should always be incompetence, not bad intentions.

Big government requires competent legislatures, competent management and  control of executive departments, apolitical oversight by attorneys general and objective studies of its failures if it has any hope of being efficient and effective.

Absolutely no one after seeing the Virginia government reaction to COVID would accuse it of any of that. We need to fix it.

Unintended consequences of legislation

Readers just had an extended discussion over my column on the unintended consequences of minimum wage hikes.

It should be not too much to ask that Virginia politicians demand a full study of the effects of legislation, including minimum wage legislation, that is guaranteed to have far-reaching effects on the state. But they do not do it in the case of minimum wage hikes.

A structural problem in the General Assembly

That is why the United States Congress, when operating under Regular Order (which hasn’t happened with Ms. Pelosi as Speaker), has a system of majority and minority staffs on every committee. Each presents a report that is considered by the committee as a whole to help craft legislation. Believe it or not, in regular order good ideas come from both sides and often result in better bills even when the minority does not get most of what it wants.

Every time I have written here about the structural deficiencies of the General Assembly I have brought up that it is critically understaffed, especially in support of its part-time legislators.

Some legislators may enjoy throwing bills in the hopper and having them passed into law without any review other than political. The General Assembly passed 2020 HB 395 Minimum Wage last year on party line votes in both houses with nothing that would qualify as a study of its effects. All Republican amendments were rejected, even though a package of those amendments got a 20-20 vote in the Senate with Sen. Joe Morrissey supporting. The Lieutenant Governor had to break the tie.

I am sure that similar things happened the Republicans were in control.

Certainly, some lobbyists like that system and don’t want to see it change. I find it impossible to blame lobbyists for the state of affairs. They are paid to draft and support legislation that favors their clients points of view and have it passed as quickly as possible. Most believe the legislation they support is as good as it needs to be. It is not their job to vet it with those who may disagree.

I blame the members for not setting up a committee staff system that emulates that of the Congress. Even if they continue to meet for very short periods each year, they should defer legislation that needs extended staff review, like minimum wage.

As I blame the members for lack of campaign donation limits.

As I blame the members for ignoring the reports of the Inspector General, like his report on VDH inspection staffing deficiencies, who they positioned to monitor and report on deficiencies in the Executive Department.

It is not too much to ask that our politicians demand a full study of the effects of legislation that is guaranteed to have far-reaching effects on the state.

Minimum wage is the kind of bill that should be introduced one year and voted on the next with the intervening months used to do a proper assessment, including a full vetting by noted economists on both sides of economic philosophy. Of course economists and other “experts” will disagree. That is the point of the Congressional staff system.

It is not a new idea in Virginia. Such a rule would emulate the current requirements for health insurance legislation that must be vetted between sessions by the Health Insurance Reform Commission.

All of us should demand that no important but non-emergency legislation be introduced for final vote with just a very hasty preliminary assessment of its costs to the government only.

Consumer protection and the Attorney General

The Attorney General fills a constitutional position for a reason. He is independent of the Governor and the General Assembly for a reason. He has the responsibilities, among others, to ensure that consumers are protected.

§ 2.2-517. Division of Consumer Counsel created; duties.
A. There is created in the Department of Law a Division of Consumer Counsel (the Division) that shall represent the interests of the people as consumers.

The rest of that statute gives the AG broad leadership and action responsibilities to protect consumers.

Virginians are consumers of multiple government services, including health care and education to name two. There is nothing in the law establishing the Attorney General’s Division of Consumer Counsel that prevents him from representing consumers who are victims of executive or legislative misfeasance.

From that point, his oath to “support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge all the duties incumbent upon me according to the best of my ability” takes over.

I wrote earlier that the Attorney General was a constitutional officer for a reason — to give him independence from the executive and legislative branches. His responsibilities to consumers are an example of why that independence matters.

Competence in the Executive Branch

I worked under contract to the Clinton Administration in its push to “reinvent government” led by the Vice President.  They had really good intentions and very good ideas about how to implement change, but the management changes that were part of that initiative were broken on the rocks of bureaucratic resistance.

Virginia state bureaucracies are not nearly as vast or as powerful in defense of their own interests as those of the federal government.

The utter breakdown of the state’s management systems under the strains of COVID should be the subject of an unflinching study sponsored by the General Assembly.

Governor Northam’s successor, Democrat or Republican, deserves a chance to fix what is broken and in fact was broken long before he took office. I have a long list starting with VDH, but a competent study would identify them all.

We must demand that the General Assembly sponsor such a study immediately.

Given the stakes involved and the demonstrably deadly nature of the effects of government bureaucratic incompetence, we can hope that such legislation will be passed unanimously.


If we fail to recognize what it broken, we can never fix it. The recommendations here all have successful precedents. All are bipartisan.

We must insist on getting them done. As the great seal of the Commonwealth exhorts, persevere.