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Votes

Statesmanship Prevailed

During legislative sessions in Virginia there is far too much partisan bickering, currying to special interests and, in recent years, doing the things that appear on late-night comedy shows. These events tend to overshadow the amount of time that legislators work amicably together, regardless of political party and without personal gain, to solve complex problems to make the commonwealth a better place to live. The negative forces at work in the legislature help to contrast the significant moments when statesmanship prevails.

Such an event happened last week in the House of Delegates. In a surprising move the week before, Senate Republicans took advantage of their one-vote advantage as a result of one Democrat not being at the session that day to pass an entirely new redrawing of Senate districts that would significantly advantage them at the polls. The process of gerrymandering, drawing district lines for your political advantage, is not new. Senate Democrats and House Republicans had done the same thing in drawing lines after the 2010 census. The Senate action was especially objectionable because it was done without notice or public comment in a year when redistricting is not scheduled to take place and on the one day when Senator Henry Marsh, a civil rights icon in Virginia, was out of his seat to attend the inauguration of President Obama. I wrote about it previously as being “a breach of trust.” Their new plan was attached as an amendment to a House bill that contained technical corrections to the previous redistricting. Its action had to be approved by the House of Delegates.

The legislative process in the Virginia General Assembly is much different from that in the U.S. Congress. A bill by constitutional directive can only contain one “object” or subject; there are no Christmas tree bills as in the U.S. Congress. Under the rules of the legislature recorded by Thomas Jefferson, amendments to bills must be germane; they must relate directly to the subject. In the House of Delegates, authority to decide if a bill is properly before the House for consideration lies with the speaker. Some of these decisions are extremely close calls. The speaker has his personal and political biases to take into account as well as pressure from the dominant party to rule in its favor. In this case, the pressure would come from his own party since a Republican-controlled Senate would certainly make it easier for Republican House members to get their legislation passed.

The speaker took about a week and a half to announce his decision. He found that the Senate amendment did not violate the one object requirement. The bill was all about redistricting. He ruled, however, that the Senate plan for redistricting was not germane to the House bill, which was intended to make only technical corrections to the House redistricting. That meant the bill could not be considered by the House and would not become law. Many members of his own party did not like his decision. The speaker was correct in his ruling. I thanked him for it. It was all too brief an instance where in the legislative process statesmanship prevailed. Maybe it can start a trend.