Saturday, August 30, 2014

Speak Your Piece: Democracy and Hypocrisy in Virginia State Capitol

02/22/2008

Editor's Note: The Washington Post notes that the "veneer of gentility that once marked the proceedings of the Virginia General Assembly has faded badly," and now the state faces an impasse over the budget. St. Paul, Virginia, attorney and Yonder contributor Frank Kilgore explains.

virginiaThe Virginia state capitol.
Photo: stgermh

Two wrongs do not make a right, but they at least deserve to be reported. That revised axiom is particularly true when reporting the abuses of political power. Recent news articles have scathed the Republican House majority in Virginia for failing to record sub-committee votes and the related media reports and editorials also seem to imply that the Democrats, when they held the majority, were more benevolent and transparent with political power.

First of all, any political body in America that fails to record a public vote is wrong, period. While it is true that the sub-committee hearings and votes are open to the public and usually well attended, it should not be Joe Citizen's job to count the raised hands or voice votes.

But what about the way things were done during the preceding 130 years that the Democrats held the majority in the Virginia General Assembly? Currently, the House Republican majority appoints committee members in proportion to each party's numbers. In other words, if the Democrats have 45% of the general membership in the House, they receive that proportionate share of committee slots.

This proportionate power sharing arrangement, adopted by the Republican majority for no other apparent reason than to be fair, never existed under the Democrat rule of over a century. Applying this self-imposed rule after the Democrats recently gained seats required the House Republicans to take some of their own party members off of committees and replace them with Democrats. This voluntary act of reducing one's own party power is unprecedented in Virginia.

In the 1990's, Democrats dominated the powerful House Appropriations Committee and they allowed the Republicans with much less representation than their numbers would seem to require. In 1992, the Republicans had 18 members in the Senate, the Democrats 22, yet the Senate Finance Committee was made up of 12 Democrats and 3 Republicans. Examples of "hogging" power and killing bills in the dark are easy to find under Democrat rule.

The Republican minority for 130 years had no say (as in zero) in the selection of Virginia's judges. Yet, after the Republicans took the majority they re-appointed over 90% of the Democrat incumbent judges and appointed or elevated other Democrats to the bench, much to the dismay of many Republican lawyers wanting to fill those positions. The anticipated "bloodbath" in the judiciary never happened. Selecting judges is serious business with long term ramifications and the Republicans' self restraint in that regard has not been much discussed or appreciated.

Most recently the media complained that the House majority would not allow a Democrat delegate to remove his own bill from a House floor vote. Apparently the House Republicans wanted to force Democrats to vote a pro-union bill up or down in order to show union members that given a chance, some Democrats would vote for big business, contrary to campaign promises.dome
The dome in the Virginia capitol.
Photo: stgermh

This tactic is similar to one employed by then majority whip and accomplished Democrat quarterback, Dickie Cranwell, when he introduced the new governor's budget as his own and forced Republicans to publicly vote upon George Allen's proposed cost cuts. The proposed budget reduced many facets of state government and the public was up in arms (with the help of a little bit of demagoguery). In particular, Allen's cuts did not touch education but that was not what voters were being told.

The tactic boomeranged a bit when Cranwell was nearly beaten the next election by a novice Republican in his district. She simply showed voters the budget bill that Cranwell introduced along with copies of news articles quoting Democrat leaders saying that the budget proposal would close essential services. Politicians can often times outfox themselves, a lesson that the Republican majority would be wise to recall.

So, the bottom line is that both parties use political procedures and obscure parliamentary rules to get their way. Neither party is pure nor do their histories indicate that they ever will be so. They are made up of humans after all, and merit constant oversight with balanced and full reporting.

On balance, the Republican House majority has been abundantly fair with committee appointments but continues to make the same old mistake as their Democrat predecessors by refusing to record sub-committee votes. If the media will accurately report the fallacies and abuses of both parties, present and past, the public will be much better informed. Independents, after weighing both honest assessments, might then be more persuaded to vote accordingly come election time. They do, after all, control the outcome of most elections.

Frank Kilgore is an attorney practicing in the Southwest Virginia coalfields and has been active in issues regarding conservation, education, health care, economic development and politics for over thirty years.