Keep Virginia’s Part-Time Citizen Legislature

by Kerry Dougherty

Mark Rozell, a political scientist and Dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, has a terrible idea. It’s not original. It surfaces from time to time.

Let’s hope it goes nowhere.

In an opinion piece published recently in The Washington Post, “Virginia’s Legislature Was Built for Agrarian Times. Is It Time for An Update?” Rozell points to the fact that Virginia’s General Assembly is back in Richmond for a special session to hammer out a budget as reason to switch from a part-time legislature to a full-time, year-round body.

You know, like they have in California, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania. Such models of good government.

“Virginia has outgrown a lawmaking methodology created for yesteryear’s drowsy Southern farming state with a smaller, more homogenous populace. Rapid and diverse population growth in recent decades and technological leaps in the speed at which information moves and commerce is transacted — unimaginable 50 years ago — have made governing increasingly complicated,” he wrote.

Seems Rozell would prefer that the commonwealth be governed by professional politicians, perhaps grads of George Mason. They could go directly from university to a bubble in Richmond where they could feverishly pass laws without being forced to canoodle with the unwashed, except at election time.

Currently, our part-time citizen lawmakers head to Richmond for 60 days in even numbered years and 30 days in odd ones. Once the session ends, they return to their homes and their day jobs. This is good. It keeps them grounded.

Committees meet after the session and members are often called back to attack unfinished business.

But because their pay is low — last time I checked it was $17,460 for delegates, $18,000 for senators — most members need to hurry back to their full-time jobs and their paychecks.

Those occupations keep them in touch with the people who elect them. I flipped through the House of Delegates biographies yesterday to check out their professions. Unsurprisingly, there are many lawyers in that chamber. But there are also consultants, telecommunications workers, farmers, small business owners, retirees, teachers, a retired Virginia State trooper, a home-health franchise owner, a grocer, healthcare workers, a pastor, a cybersecurity engineering technician, a construction company owner, a salesman and a wine shop owner (hello Del. Emily Brewer!).

Do these lawmakers with their varied experiences and political differences always come together for a smooth legislating session? Nope. But they bring a wide range of expertise and experience to the halls of the Capitol.

Those life experiences are invaluable. Beyond that, when their legislating is finished they are forced to go home and live among their constituents who will let them know if the laws they passed were beneficial or harmful.

Rozell’s argument, that Virginia’s lawmakers have difficulty conducting all of their business in the allotted time and that if they worked year-round they’d get it all done, shows a remarkable naïveté.

Surely Rozell has seen how Congress procrastinates. How many times have Washington politicians passed continuing resolutions to avoid government shutdowns because they couldn’t hash out a budget?

In a 2021 article in “Charlottesville Tomorrow” State Sen. Creigh Deeds, a Democrat from Bath County, argued against a full-time legislature.

“You live amongst the people you represent,” Deeds said. “It’s a part-time job and a full-time responsibility. You have to live under the laws you create, and I hope it keeps you closer to the people you represent.”

Deeds is exactly right.

It’s worth remembering that Bristol, Virginia, on the Tennessee border is closer to four other state capitals than it is to Richmond. Lawmakers who stay hundreds of miles away from their home districts most of the year lose touch with their voters and the issues that matter most to them.

On Tuesday, a caller to the “Kerry and Mike” radio show — Carolyn — proposed a solution to the budget delay: lawmakers should agree at the start of the session to pass a budget before tackling any other matters, she suggested.


As far as I know, Carolyn does not write opinion pieces for The Washington Post. Nor is she the dean of a university or a hotshot political scientist.

Just a common-sense Virginian. The sort lawmakers should listen to when they return home from Richmond.

This column has been republished with permission from Kerry: Unemployed & Unedited.

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15 responses to “Keep Virginia’s Part-Time Citizen Legislature”

  1. There are many drawbacks to a part-time legislature. But I can think of nothing as bad the entrenchment of the political class year-round in Richmond.

    1. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      Rozell was on a deadline and lacked a column idea, so came up with this lamebrain suggestion, which indeed emerges now and then like the cicadas. Only possible explanation.

    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      They’re just not in Richmond while doing it. There is no such thing as a bribe season.

    3. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      Rozell was on a deadline and lacked a column idea, so came up with this lamebrain suggestion, which indeed emerges now and then like the cicadas. Only possible explanation.

  2. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    A part time legislature is a sure fire way to maintain limited government.

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead

        So right. Maybe have them meet for just one day a year.

  3. James McCarthy Avatar
    James McCarthy

    To create a more efficient and effective GA abolish the Senate chamber. Like its Congressional analog, the GA senate is an anachronism. The Commonwealth has no similar geographical rationale as existed with the 13 colonies to require a senate. Both chambers represent the same residents only differentiated by artificial lines drawn on a map. Although a retired attorney, I favor banning lawyers as legislators preferring to rely upon the professional staff for drafting measures.

    The citizen legislator has a great deal to favor. A better pay scale, however, might make the positions more attractive. At the same time, campaign finance limits are in order.

    1. WayneS Avatar

      To create a more efficient and effective GA abolish the Senate chamber.

      My immediate reaction to your suggestion was “Hell no, we need a bicameral legislature”.

      Upon further consideration, though, I realized I should ask myself why our state legislature needs to be comprised of two parts.

      I know the justification for the house and senate for the federal government and I agree that it is a good idea, even though the 17th amendment weakens even that argument a bit.

      I’m going to have to mull this one over a bit. Thank you for giving me something to “chew on” today.

      1. James McCarthy Avatar
        James McCarthy

        Direct election of US Senators has not improved the chamber’s excesses, especially its domination of the nation’s political agenda. Worse, is the domination by an even smaller coterie of political insiders.
        There may be some residual benefit to be identified in the states’ rights rationale, but that IMO is offset by the structural imbalance related to the Electoral College and selection of national leaders different from the popular vote. A unicameral state legislature makes a great deal of sense if only to limit legislative friction caused by two chambers.

  4. Penrosian Avatar

    Alt proposal: keep a part-time legislature (to keep them grounded) but give them funding for multiple well-paid full-time policy staff so that they have access to full-time in-house policy expertise. The biggest issue with the part-time legislature is the power dynamic when going toe-to-toe with full-time well-paid lobbyists & advocacy organizations. This could be a way to keep that part-time grounding while giving them the ability to find the hidden landmines and overlooked assumptions coming out of the lobbyists & advocacy organizations during the whirlwind legislative session.

  5. DJRippert Avatar

    A full time legislature along with term limits makes sense to me. I’ve heard over and over that our state politicians have to get their information from lobbyists and other special interests because they have too little time to do the research themselves. In combination with unlimited “campaign” donations, it’s a recipe for grift, graft and disaster.

  6. WayneS Avatar

    Where state legislatures are concerned, there is only one thing worse than having a part time state legislature — having a full-time state legislature.

  7. Scott McPhail Avatar
    Scott McPhail

    (SIGH) For all intents and purpose we HAVE a full time legislature- they raise money full time, they politic full time, the only thing they don’t do is spend much TIME legislating . . so instead they just cram as much legislation and as much spending as they possibly can in a limited time.

    Or less flippantly, is it really worse to have say, 1000 bills ,passed over a year by a full time legislature than say, 750 rammed through at break neck speed in 45 days by a “part-time” legislature?

    Who knows, the “full-time” legislature might even read a portion of the bills . . .

    1. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      Nah. Some don’t even read their own when the draft comes from Legislative Services.

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