The General Assembly reconvenes today for its annual “veto session” to take up bills that have been vetoed or amended by the governor.
Things may or may not go our way. By our way, we mean passage of a funding mechanism to pay for improvements on Interstate 81. Whether things go our way or not, today’s veto session is perhaps the clearest way in which Virginia’s government functions better than the federal government — regardless of which party is control in either Richmond or Washington.
First, note the words above — “vetoed or amended by the governor.” Under the U.S. Constitution, a president has but two options on how to deal with a bill on his — and someday, her — desk: Either sign or veto it, and see if Congress can muster a two-thirds majority to override. A Virginia governor possesses a third option. He — and someday, she — can send a bill back with proposed amendments. That’s what Gov. Ralph Northam has done in the case of Interstate 81, by adding a funding mechanism to what previously was merely a study of ways to pay for road improvements.
It’s hard to tell how that amendment option for a president would change the balance of power between executive and legislature that James Madison and others so carefully crafted in the U.S. Constitution. Ultimately, though, that one provision isn’t why Virginia’s government is superior.
Nor is the fact that we have a part-time legislature. We often hear people talk about how it would be nice to have a part-time Congress whose members do their work and then go home to their regular occupations the way the General Assembly does. In truth, legislators who serve in the General Assembly quickly find their job lasts more than just a few weeks in the winter, because committee meetings and other work goes on all year ‘round. So do questions from constituents.
Besides, a part-time Congress means yielding even more power to unelected forces — lobbyists, for instance, who are already working year-round and often have more expertise on an issue than a part-time legislator can ever hope to muster. For instance, Republicans once again learned the value of the oversight of a full-time Congress when they controlled the Capitol, while first Bill Clinton and later Barack Obama were in the White House. Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives are reveling in that oversight now. Would Republicans have wanted to leave Washington and let Clinton or Obama run the place alone? Would Democrats want to do that now with Donald Trump? It’s hard to have Madison’s co-equal branches of government if one is only part-time. The supposedly part-time nature of the General Assembly works better because state government is on a more human-sized scale than the federal government. No, the real superiority of the Virginia system of government — and specifically the superiority of the General Assembly over Congress — is this: Our legislature meets deadlines.
First of all, it has deadlines — with the veto session being the last of those. When the General Assembly convenes each year, there’s a strict schedule for almost everything. All bills must be introduced by a certain date. Each chamber must finish work on its own bills by a certain date and send those that survive to the other house — the so-called “crossover” day. And the legislature finishes its work on a set day, which sometimes gets pushed back, but is usually pretty close to the designated “sine die,” the Latin phrase for adjournment that Virginia uses. In theory, between the legislature’s opening and its “sine die,” every bill actually gets voted on at some point. We say “in theory” because there are some legislative tricks to bypass bills without leaving any fingerprints on them. But even then, every bill meets some sort of fate by a certain date — even if it’s quietly dispatched at some legislative subcommittee that meets at an odd hour. People may not always like the outcome, but, by golly, we always know what that outcome is. By contrast, Congress has no schedules, no deadlines, and most bills that get introduced never come up for a vote. They just go into a hopper, and only get called up if the party leadership wants them brought up. That’s why Congress seems to go long stretches without doing anything productive but then, suddenly, the Senate finds itself voting almost immediately on the Green New Deal. That’s because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted that one brought up, because he felt a vote would be politically useful for his Republicans and embarrassing for Democrats.
Most other bills, though, simply disappear into the void. That’s why when you hear about some member of Congress introducing a bill, it’s usually best to ignore it — because the odds are great that bill will never be voted on. In Richmond, however, it would be. It might get shot down in a subcommittee on the first day like the tributes at the Cornucopia in the “Hunger Games.” But at least you’ll know what happened and who did it. Because the General Assembly sets and meets deadlines, the state legislature always manages to do something that Congress has found increasingly difficult to do — pass a budget. Granted, the legislature in recent years has often had to work well beyond the scheduled session, and sometimes had to come back as late as June to pass a final budget. But it’s always met the ultimate deadline: The start of the fiscal year on July 1. Over the past two decades, Virginia has had a divided government most of the time — usually with a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature. They’ve sometimes fought like rabid wildcats over the budget. But in the end, they always manage to pass one. Virginia state government has never shut down. Nor has the General Assembly resorted to the congressional trick of passing “omnibus” bills —massive bills that carry all sorts of things that aren’t remotely related to one another, and in which lurks the possibility of all sorts of mischief. In Richmond, amendments have to be “germane” to the bill. There’s lots of wiggle room there, of course, depending on who’s wielding the gavel, but both parties have been reasonably strict. That’s one of the issues before today’s session: Will Northam’s I-81 amendment dealing with I-81 funding be ruled “germane” to an I-81 study bill? House Speaker Kirk Cox has signalled that it will be. Depending on your point of view, you may not like that ruling and the outcome of subsequent votes. But either way, the fact that something is happening shows once again how Richmond is superior to Washington, where often nothing happens.