Tough Question: What’s Going On at the Virginia General Assembly?

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 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 laws 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 to the Virginia Constitution and there’s no need to dive deep on that subject here, except to say that there were, 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.)

Public access. Public comprehension. Public participation. None of these things are presently (nor have they been for a long time) in sync with the demands imposed upon the General Assembly.

In 1983, when I wrote the earlier essay, Virginia had put a legislative management commission into service to address and propose remedies to then-existing, widely recognized deficiencies.

Noting much got accomplished. Why? Because there was too much vested in the existing set-up. If you understood it, you had an advantage over anyone who didn’t understand it. Obviously, if you don’t understand it – if you can’t even get access to it – the public opportunity to influence it is zilch.

This existing situation helps explain the explosion of interest in organizational lobbying. The lobbying part of Virginia’s lawmaking work used to sit in my head as a big part of the problem.

But your perspective changes as other things change. To a significant extent, the experience of lobbyists today well exceeds the experience of lawmakers and, therefore, the lobbyists themselves have become an important and valuable source of governing continuity.

As much as some people want things to change in Virginia, if we try to change everything, all at once, then we invite reaction (we end with different majorities in the House, for instance, with every election), legal chaos, and advanced public confusion.

I love the Virginia General Assembly. I have for as long as I can remember. It combines dispute resolution with human imperfection and things that matter. It’s intellectual and cartoonish. It’s vital and absurd.

It’s also great theater. Only after the performance, when the curtain falls on a legislative session, you have to remember that it was real, that the effect on lives and enterprise is substantial, meaningful and frequently lasting.

So we should take our best shot at this work and, for far too long, we have not. We need to get a grip on the process (it suffered greatly during the Covid pandemic) and see if we might update it or even improve its procedures.

We have a golden opportunity to do so. Right now. All these newly-elected people – more than a third of the total legislative membership — will be taking their seats in the General Assembly and sizing up their offices in a brand new legislative office building.

No question, improved technology and facilities have greatly improved the process. In 1977, when I first worked in the state Senate, the rather small rooms of the old Hotel Richmond provided state legislative office space. The bathrooms were a tight squeeze, too, since we had to keep the file cabinets in there.

We’re doing better than that now, but public understanding and access – meaning the lack thereof – are inadequate.

We have new lawmaking horses. We can at least improve their opportunity to drink. The organizers of the recently concluded Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee retreat in Northern Virginia set a splendid example by taking an explicitly didactic approach to the briefings.

It might be useful for the Virginia General Assembly to get creative along the lines of what the Virginia State Bar does with Continuing Legal Education (CLE). Design and institutionalize it anyway you want, but give it depth, ground it in objectivity and make it available for all members, seasoned or not.

Likewise, everyone would benefit from a firm fix, not just of their own jurisdiction, but on all of Virginia. We need to assemble for the Assembly a better understanding of what constitutes Virginia, not yesterday, but right this minute.

One glaring example: Virginia political parties have aligned on geography. That’s new and the theoretical implications for Virginia – with the practical difficulty of forming consensus over difficult topics – is daunting. But we have to confront it.

Likewise, we have to get a grip on the fact that legislative races have been nationalized, not only in content, but in funding. These days the money required for state office is, well, rather large, while the compensation for legislative service defines the word “paltry.” It’s not an especially  healthy arrangement; we need to be careful. Virginia is well overdue on improving legislative compensation.

There was an attempt, in the late 1990s, to do something sensible about compensation along the lines of indexing and peer comparisons. Two governors – Republican Linwood A. Holton, Jr. and Democrat Jerry Baliles – undertook a combined effort to cut through the partisan maneuvering and improve legislative compensation.

Those two Virginia political titans did not get it done. But they were right on the money. Literally.

If we can summon the will to do the legislative process better, we should also do better by the people in the process.

Gordon C. Morse once wrote commentary for the newspapers in Hampton Roads,  and he served under Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles.