It is tempting for each of us in this room to take for granted the ways of the General Assembly. Year in and year out, as lobbyists, advocates, media, staff or lawmakers, we all gradually figure out how the process works and how it doesn’t work.
We know how to look up committee meeting times, we know how to look up legislation, we know how to act and what to expect in a committee meetings. We know what the motions mean. We know how to approach the secretaries, the legislative aids, the staff attorneys. And we always remember to preface our committee testimony by thanking the chair and the committee members.
We know these things because it is our job to know. We figure it out through being here, by observing, asking, and learning from others.
But are we in this room and elsewhere in the General Assembly and Capitol buildings today, are we the only ones who care about what happens here? Are we the only ones who have a stake in the outcome of proposed legislation? Are WE the only ones who want to know how well our elected officials have performed the jobs we elected them to do?
The answer is clearly no.
Yet, for any member of the public or press who is not intimately familiar with the legislative process, following or participating in that process is so difficult as to be nearly impossible. For example, when seasoned lobbyists are chastised for not following unwritten rules for opposing a bill, imagine what a citizen faces when trying to participate in person.
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.”
The system is set up for those on the inside, yet even many professionals are frequently left in the dark. Where decisions about state and local laws that directly and indirectly affect each and every one of us are made, the short sessions and the rapid-fire scheduling of committee meetings undermine participation by and accountability to the citizens of Virginia.
It is with this backdrop that Transparency Virginia formed in December of 2014 and today releases its report documenting the murky practices frequently seen in the Virginia General Assembly.
We are a loosely formed coalition of non-profit advocacy groups and individual lobbyists and advocates. We met in early January to identify the three practices we would take special note of during the session:
notice of meetings
the consideration of bills AND
recorded votes on bills
We chose these three areas because citizens would have little trouble understanding the fundamental role of each in the overall legislative process.
Many of Transparency Virginia’s findings are disturbing. Bills were introduced but then left in committees without ever being added to an agenda much less given a hearing. Bills were defeated by unrecorded voice votes, allowing some lawmakers to avoid responsibility and disallowing others from making their position known. Meetings were called with notice so short as to make it virtually impossible for anyone other than the committee members to attend.
These practices paint a stark reality: A body that prides itself on being a citizen legislature is too often a legislature that is NOT for the citizens.
It must be stated clearly and emphatically, though, that this report is not a condemnation of any one person or any one party.
Though Republicans hold majorities in both the House and Senate, it would be as much of a mistake to say, “This is a Republican problem,” as it would be to say, “This is an attack on Republicans.”
The sad truth is that these are systemic problems. Problems that have developed over time, over parties and over party leaders.
To anyone who would reduce this to a partisan issue, I would make the following two points:
First, as the report mentions, there are committee and subcommittee chairs who do the right thing and committees that operate openly. All of these committees are chaired by Republicans.
Second, a committee is more than its chair. Every committee is made up of members of both parties. And any member of either party can make a motion or a substitute motion that is or is not in the spirit of transparency. The data Transparency Virginia analyzed shows only how the committee or subcommittee voted as a whole, not which individual made the motion.
Further, any legislator of either party can speak out about opaque practices before, during and after committee meetings. No one from either party is gagged from advocating for transparency.
Transparency takes collective will and collective action. It can’t take place in a vacuum where lawmakers tell the public only how much they want to let them know, or where the public gets to demand that every detail be laid bare.
The aim of this report, and indeed for Transparency Virginia, then, is to facilitate a conversation about what makes better open government practices. What can we do to help citizens get and stay informed? What can we do to make participation easier?
We don’t have all of the answers.
It is our hope, instead, that our elected officials today and whoever they might be tomorrow take the public’s right to know seriously. They should work with their constituents and others to develop policies and procedures that work to the public’s benefit. And they should make it a priority to put those policies and procedures into practice.
This is what is best for us all. This is what makes us a Common-wealth. This is what makes us Virginians.