Musical Chairs

Del. Don Scott (D-Portsmouth),  Speaker-designate

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

One of the most potent powers of the Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates is the assigning of members to committees and designating the chair of each committee. He has sole prerogative over this important function.

Speaker-designate Don Scott (D-Portsmouth) has broken a little with tradition (in addition to the other ways he is a “first”).  In the past, a Speaker would wait until a day or two after the Session had convened to release the committee appointments list. In recent days, Scott has been releasing the names of committee chairs, one by one. Perhaps he is hoping to get some publicity for the new chairs, but, so far, the press has taken notice of only one, Sam Rasoul of Roanoke.

These are the chairs named so far:

  • Sam Rasoul (Roanoke)–Education
  • Vivian Watts (Fairfax)–Finance
  • Patrick Hope (Arlington)–Courts of Justice
  • Jeion Ward (Hampton)–Labor and Commerce
  • Mark Sickles (Fairfax)–Health and Human Services
  • Luke Torian (Prince William)–Appropriations

With one exception, none of these appointments is a surprise.

Generally, the Speaker will name the delegate from his party with the most seniority on the committee as chair. That has not always been the case, but exceptions have been rare. The one exception on the above list is Patrick Hope. In the most recent session, he was third in seniority among Democrats, behind Watts and Charniele Herring (Alexandria). (Rasoul also had two more senior Democrats ahead of him on the Education committee last session, but neither of those members will be returning to the House in 2024.)

Four of those named, Torian, Sickles, Ward, and Watts, chaired their respective committees in the 2020 and 2021 Sessions.

It is not surprising that Scott passed over Watts for chair of Courts. She is not an attorney and having a non-attorney chairing that committee would cause some consternation among a lot of members. Besides, she was next in line for Finance and numbers and taxes are her thing. It could be argued that Herring was passed over because she will be the Majority Leader and that duty would consume too much of her time for her to also chair Courts. However, during the 2020 and 2021 Sessions, when Democrats were in the majority, she was both Majority Leader and chair of Courts. There may be some internal politics going on. In any event, it will be fascinating to watch Hope as chair of this committee. He is one of the most liberal members of the House, particularly in the area of criminal justice.

Scott may be trying to have the committees poised to hit the ground running when the Session convenes. Normally, a few days are wasted at the beginning of a long session until the committee assignments are announced and the committees can get organized. At the beginning of the 2020 Session, when the Democrats took over the majority for the first time in many years, there was a lot of confusion.

One of the committee names is coming to symbolize the prevailing ideology of the House chamber. For many years, it was “Commerce and Labor.” When the Democrats assumed the majority in the 2020 Session, they changed the name to “Labor and Commerce.” Back in the majority in 2022, the Republicans renamed the committee as “Commerce and Energy.” Apparently, it will return to being known as “Labor and Commerce” in 2024.