Transparency Virginia, a nonprofit, nonpartisan legislative watchdog group, released a report last Tuesday highlighting “murky practices” and “disturbing” findings from the 2015 General Assembly session.
By Michael Melkonian | Capital News Service
Transparency Virginia, a nonprofit, nonpartisan legislative watchdog group, released a report last Tuesday highlighting “murky practices” and “disturbing” findings from the 2015 General Assembly session with regard to unrecorded votes and short notices for committee meetings.
The principal author of the report, Megan Rhyne of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the system is devised for insiders and “the short sessions and the rapid-fire scheduling of committee meetings undermine participation by and accountability to the citizens of Virginia.”
Transparency Virginia formed in December to study legislative practices in three areas: advanced notice of committee meetings, consideration of bills and recorded votes on bills.
In the House of Delegates, Transparency Virginia’s report revealed that 76 percent of almost 825 bills that died in a committee died without a recorded vote or without any vote at all. In the House’s Rules Committee, 95 percent of bills died this way.
Ironically, that was the committee that could recommend changing the chamber’s procedures.
No legislators were identified or chastised in the report, and political parties weren’t accused of wrongdoing. Transparency Virginia said this was because all legislators should be held accountable for the practices.
Republicans have a majority in both the House and Senate. Consequently, one party controls who will chair committee and subcommittees.
The House Rules Committee, for example, is chaired by House Speaker Bill Howell, a Republican from Fredericksburg. The Rules Committee has three subcommittees: Joint Rules, Standards of Conduct, and Studies. The subcommittees are chaired by Republicans Howell, Del. Barry Knight of Virginia Beach, and Del. Bobby Orrock of Thornburg.
Sixty of the 63 bills killed in the Rules Committee and its subcommittees died without recorded votes or any vote at all.
The report is mostly anecdotal, with bullet points for the most dubious practices. Rhyne wondered what it must be like for citizens to try to participate in their government when even professionals like herself and her colleagues are confused by the procedural jargon.
“When engaged observers are physically present in the committee room and yet still cannot completely pick out which members of a 22-person committee shouted out aye or nay, imagine a citizen’s confusion back home when the disposition of a bill is listed online only as ‘subcommittee recommends laying on the table by voice vote,'” Rhyne said.
Michael Jackson, president of Richmond First Club, said that the system works–but only for those on the inside.
“It works if you’re a legislator–maximum flexibility and minimum accountability. It works if you own a business–access and influence,” Jackson said.
But it doesn’t work for citizens because of a lack of predictability and consistency, Jackson said. Meetings can be called on a whim, or docket changes can be made without notice to the general public.
Though some committee rooms are equipped with electronic voting boards, they are often unused. Transparency Virginia brainstormed solutions to its complaints, including digital video streams for committees and subcommittees – something other state legislatures have introduced. House and Senate floor sessions already can be viewed online.
Jackson said Transparency Virginia is “simply holding up a mirror to the General Assembly legislators and asking them, ‘Is this the form of democracy that the Virginia citizens elected you to uphold?'”
Anne Sterling, president of the League of Women Voters in Virginia, chaired Transparency Virginia. She said the group’s mission is to open a dialogue.
“This is just the first volley. Now we are waiting for a response from citizens, from the press and from legislators,” Sterling said.