The 2016 legislative calendar came to an end with the closing of the Veto Session on April 20. Fortunately, Democrats were able to uphold all but one of the Governor’s vetoes of various regressive pieces of social legislation passed by Republican majorities. Few legislative sponsors were surprised by these vetoes, but passage, alone, supported the sponsors’ political interests by energizing partisan activists in the Republican base.
Politics, for better or worse, often involves elements that are more game than good governance. For example, legislators sometimes submit or support legislation less because they believe it is good policy than because it is good politics. When legislators go on record in support of such positions, they become accountable.
Now, admittedly this concern is of little interest to the majority of citizens. If you are reading this column, though, you may have need or interest in learning about the inner workings and financial drivers of the politics in Richmond. Virginia has a number of organizations that gather and provide information to the public. Since 1997 the Virginia Public Access Project has been the go to, non-partisan source for documenting the flow of money in politics. Their website provides an enormous trove of data on the elections process and finance, on donors and their contributions and on the legislators, committees, and bills introduced and acted on by the General Assembly.
Unfortunately, the Virginia General Assembly does business under rules that enable legislators to achieve political goals without the “burden” of accountability. The main topic of this column is to address the issue of legislative transparency.
Transparency in the legislative process is important to citizens and to advocacy organizations that track the performance of legislators and hold them accountable for their actions or inaction. This means conducting all legislative business “in the light of day.” Achieving real transparency requires capturing and providing timely and usable public access to lots of information, including: 1) which legislators introduce what legislation; 2) which legislative committees consider what legislation and what actions individual legislators take; and of course 3) what are the financial or other interests of individual legislators that may have had an impact on their legislative actions.
Transparency Virginia is a collection of advocacy groups and non-profits that closely monitor legislative actions. In 2015, the organization released a report showing that 76 percent of bills defeated in the House of Delegates, and 7 percent of Senate bills, were defeated without a recorded vote. One situation that could potentially result in actions with unrecorded votes was when legislators met at their desks in chambers while in session to address and agree to specific actions. The more common approach for circumventing recorded votes was propagated under new legislative rules enacted in 2005. The new rules were put into place primarily to accommodate the increasing volume of legislation, but they also enabled Committees to assign legislation to Subcommittees that do not record votes. Additionally, with an increased number of meetings overall, the logistics for public notification became difficult.
To address concerns raised by legislators, as well as by advocacy groups, in 2016 the House of Delegates eliminated meetings at member desks and refined the ability to check on Committee and Subcommittee meetings using the online meeting notification system. However, these actions had little impact because in 2016, 95 percent of bills that died in the House did not receive a recorded vote.
All legislators must, at least, pay lip service to transparency. Openly admitting that in some cases you prefer to conduct the Commonwealth’s business in the hallways of the Capitol is politically risky whatever your party. On the other hand, introducing and perpetuating legislative processes that obscure the public’s ability to understand who really does what regarding specific pieces of legislation seems to be a more acceptable tactic to promote the partisan enterprise. Going forward, I believe the General Assembly must eliminate practices that enable legislators to duck responsibility for their legislative actions. We must all be held equally to an exacting standard of openness and honesty.
Delegate Kory represents the 38th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. She may be emailed at [email protected]