“Short Short” Doesn’t Work With Legislatures

Click for larger view. The proposed House of Delegate’s daily schedule for the short short session.

By Steve Haner

From our “Be Careful What You Ask for Department,” I give you the General Assembly “short session” that opens Wednesday, which is supposed to last only 30 calendar days instead of the usual 46.  The Republican effort to limit the session’s possible output and impact is being answered by Democrats seeking to accelerate the process instead.

I was asked recently what my priority was for the coming session. The answer is to avoid a deep vein thrombosis from sitting all day, five or six days a week, straining to follow intense legislative discussions and legislative maneuvers with lousy sound and a screen that looks like Hollywood Squares crossed with musical chairs. 

Doing a General Assembly at all under these conditions is legislative malpractice, a danger that should frighten all Virginians of any ideology. Nobody – not lobbyists, agency folks or average citizens – will have much luck getting input considered. Bills will be acted on far faster than even the digital tracking system can report. Expect fiscal and other impact reports to post well after bills have passed or even after the gavel falls “sine die” around Valentine’s Day.

Governor Ralph Northam was in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today complaining about the shorter short session and threatening to use his authority to call a special session later. In his case, it seems to be because he worries some of his aggressive, progressive agenda may not survive in a truncated session.

Virginia’s 73rd governor is pressed for time as lawmakers prepare to gather Wednesday for the last regular General Assembly session over which Northam will preside, one that GOP lawmakers want to restrict to 30 days. Northam called it an impossible timeline given the pandemic and Democrats’ “ambitious” progressive agenda.

“To say you can come in and do the work of the people in 30 days is just not realistic,” the governor said, vowing to extend the legislative gathering by 15 or 16 days through a special session, unless state Republicans drop their opposition to formally extending the session.”

Thwarting the progressive revolution was probably part of the motivation behind Republican legislators insisting that the off-year session stick to the shorter duration outlined in the state Constitution. Given the state’s embarrassment of financial riches (another story), cost is not really an issue.

Enough votes are needed to extend the constitutional maximum to 46 days that Republicans must join in the affirmative votes. A simple majority won’t do it. The Governor is still working to find those GOP votes, he implies. Yes, he can call a later special session but usually only for a limited purpose or purposes.

The downside of the GOP plan became evident last week as the House Democratic leadership circulated a new schedule for subcommittee and committee meetings, with four tranches of each in the morning and afternoon, followed by floor sessions starting at 4 p.m. Once those are done – and they can take several hours – more committee meetings will follow into the night.

Days that start at 7 a.m. and end at 10 p.m. are not unprecedented, but to do that every day, Monday through Friday, is unknown. Expect Saturday meetings, as well, something unknown since both bodies started marking blocs of non-controversial bills “uncontested.”

At its inception about 50 years ago, the short session was basically just for clean-up and tweaks to the budget and a few other issues. But work has grown to fill the time allotted and it is almost as busy as the full 60-day session held in even-numbered years. The pace was already dangerously rapid.

Much of the controversy this session will involve revisiting parts of that progressive agenda that failed in the regular or interminable special session held in 2020. Expect repeat arguments about paid leave, public employee unions, repeal of the Right to Work statute. But there will also be more issues, brand new issues.

As of this morning only 247 bills have been introduced and posted on the legislative information system. Even with the tight bill introduction limits on the 140 members, that will grow six-fold or more in days. The House Appropriations Committee had a deadline of yesterday for budget amendments, but Senate Finance amendments are not due until next Friday. First action on all of these matters will come in just a couple of weeks.

It takes time to read, circulate and consider bills, formulate arguments pro and con, and draft and socialize possible amendments. The combination of this accelerated schedule with the constraints of a remote session are deadly to good governance. It might indeed be time to reconsider on the time limit, but only if 1) the bill introduction limits remain tightly in place and 2) the majority leadership listens to and looks favorably on suggestions to improve communication.

Some other states are delaying their sessions at the height of the pandemic. Another possible improvement here would be to suspend this one after the bill introduction deadline. At least give the public a fighting chance to read and understand the bills before the voting starts.

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16 responses to ““Short Short” Doesn’t Work With Legislatures

  1. Heck, Steve … Give LEGISLATORS a fighting chance to read and understand the bills before they vote on them, too!

    • and some might say that this is the problem with a part-time citizen legislature…

      the other thing is that – it’s been apparent to me for some time that the
      average citizen has no clue how the actual legislative process really works. In some respects, at least some legislatators lead two lives – one in the bowels of the legislature including lobbyists and the other – dealing with citizens who may not have much of an idea of how legislation actually is done, i.e. the sausage-making.

      They have a special citizen “lobby day” but what it really feels like , is an effort to get citizens to come on that day and not other days while the professional lobbyists roam 24/7.

      Certain key individuals wield enormous power… nature of the beast no matter what party is in charge.

      But this is the way the State (and the Country) was actually created – on purpose!. This is how a representaive form of government actually does work and not always “noble”.

      As bad as it is sometimes perceived, I’ll take it any day over some other countries.

  2. What a horrifying prospect — not just a wave of “progressive” legislation, but a wave of rushed, badly written progressive legislation.

  3. How about a full time, professional legislature?

  4. Middle ground – a real professional staff ?

    • There is plenty of full time staff, and nobody elects them so they should decide nothing. A full time legislature is a horrifying prospect.

      • I thought Dick may have said there was sometimes an issue with professional staff, i.e. folks that know the law, Constitution, etc.

        I look at some of these folks who work full time at schools or businesses and wonder how they can do both jobs well. How can
        a Doctor or small business owner manage both well?

        I think Bobby Orrock works full time at a High School. In normal times, how can he do both jobs?

        I notice on the Map redistricting that manh of the citizen appointees make more than 200K a year according to VPAP.

        Not really a “citizen” representation.. In name only.

        I watch our BOS – some of whom are still employed and commuters to jobs in NoVa and I wonder, how in the world they would have time for their full time career, their family and the BOS job and it’s pretty obvious in some discussions that they do not read their agenda packets.

        • The legislature does not have the same level of general staffing that it used to have. Legislative Services consists of all lawyers, whose main role is to draft bills. Nor do the legislators have special study committees or standing subcommittee meetings during the interims that would enable the members to develop some knowledge or expertise in some areas.

  5. These people (and I use the term loosely) are passing bills without knowing what is in them in the first place.

    Maybe ditching lobbyist time and actually asking the folks of Virginia what truly works would be helpful?

    • They have always been passing bills without knowing what was in them. (Sen. Wiley Mitchell of Alexandria was the only legislator I knew who actually read all the bills before voting.) I still relish the story told by a very liberal Delegate who noticed that a certain very conservative legislator always lit up her voting light after him and always opposite of his vote. So, he started voting opposite of how he really wanted to vote, then, just before the clerk closed the voting, switching his vote, often catching his conservative colleague voting opposite of what she normally would have voted.

  6. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    I love the Hollywood Squares analogy. That was the dumbest show unless William Shatner was guesting. Get used to this kind of government. Part of the reset.

  7. Yeah, Dick, I loved the games you could play with the old voting board, how totals would rise and fall or flip as the Speaker intoned “The…clerk…will…clooooooose…the roll.”

  8. If the House were not meeting virtually, that schedule would not be possible, simply because there are not enough meeting rooms.

    Oh, for the good old days when the evenings were set aside for receptions and parties. (There was an informal listing that was guarded jealously by the clerks’ offices.) There was a lot of good eating, most of it free. Staff could get into a lot of these. The two best receptions that I went to were the joint one put on by the Wine & Beer Wholesalers and Seafood industry (all the beer and oysters on the half shell you could want) and big one thrown by the Agribusiness Council. A lot of lobbying and deal-cutting was accomplished at these bashes.
    It is not any fun to be a legislator these days.

    As for a special session, a General Assembly staffer reminded me of the problems inherent in that. First, all legislation, including the budget, that had not passed in the regular session would die and would have to be reintroduced for the special session and the process would have to start anew for each bill. Second, it is likely that, as it was for the 2020 Special Session, the two houses would not be able to agree on a schedule and procedures, with the result that it could go on for a long time. (Despite their both being Democrats, there is bad blood between Filler-Corn and Saslaw.)

  9. You go Dick!

  10. My understanding as well. A special session is not a serious counter threat.

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