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Posted at 2:16 PM ET, 07/28/2009

What We Learned in Richmond

By Stephen Stromberg

By Kris Amundson Chris Saxman

The two of us -- one a Republican from the Shenandoah Valley and one a Democrat from Northern Virginia -- announced our retirements from the Virginia General Assembly within days of each other. Since then, people have wanted to know if there was some deep, dark secret behind our retirement (nope -- all is well), and also what we learned from our combined 18 years in Richmond.

We'd answer that question this way: Saturday morning cartoons used to have a short Schoolhouse Rock video called, "How a Bill Becomes a Law." We learned that the video is not even close to reality.

We learned that ultimate power rests with the people; however, legislative power rests with legislators and the staff of Legislative Services. (Mainly the staff of Legislative Services.) It was Legislative Services staff, after all, who determined that Sen. Toddy Puller (D-Fairfax) would not introduce a bill she thought would prohibit homeowner associations from banning clotheslines. No, the legislation enjoined the associations from banning "wind energy drying devices" (SB 1065).

For non-attorney legislators like us, this meant extra hours trying to translate what often seemed like a foreign language. We learned that a pronunciation guide would be helpful. There's a lot of Latin in the Virginia code: Mutatis Mutandis. Sine Die. Et Seq. But it would also be helpful for at least the Northern Virginia delegation to know that in Richmond, bill is a two-syllable word.

Oh, and while we're on this subject, we already knew the difference between physical and fiscal. But those who don't get to speak on the House floor anyway. When you do plan to speak on a bill, we learned that you'd better know what you are talking about. Otherwise, speak very fast in polysyllabic words, which might confuse people into thinking you know what you are talking about.

Or you can be funny. A legislator such as Ward Armstrong (D-Henry) or the retired Jack Reid (R-Henrico) could often get a bill through by leaving the other delegates so amused that they voted for it. If you're going to be funny, though, you really have to be funny. Otherwise, your colleagues, in a rare show of bipartisan comity, will wave white flags (or white copy paper) as a signal for you to sit down.

We learned that one casts about 2,000 votes a year, of which 1,837 really do not matter that much -- but that without them the remaining 163 cannot be cast at all. (Of course, not everyone would agree on which bills make up the 163 important ones. We learned that whether or not golf carts can travel on public roadways is a Very Big Deal in some parts of Virginia.)

We learned that the legislature is highly organized chaos that meets for eight to 10 weeks unless the Senate was just elected. Then we meet longer. Which leads us to another thing we learned: That the Framers' design of a natural rivalry between the real two parties (the House and the Senate) extends even to the pages in each respective body. They don't like each other either.

Actually, we learned that a bicameral legislature is an important safety mechanism for democracy. Legislators can -- and often do -- introduce some gawd-awful legislation. Sometimes, even the patron of the bill secretly hopes the Other Body will put some dreadful idea out of its misery. Why do we introduce bad bills? Constituents insist they have the solution to a problem. Lobbyists ask legislators to carry what they promise is "a simple little bill." And sometimes, we think of bad ideas all by ourselves. Even the things that start out as fine ideas may have consequences we did not fully foresee because the bills are written in a foreign language (see above).

So killing bills is a big part of the job of a legislator. We've killed bills of our political friends. We've killed bills of our political foes. And we've killed bills from political friends who became political foes because we killed their bills.

We learned that relationships matter and that building them requires patience and the ability to say, "I'm not sorry I just killed your bill because I think it was stupid," without actually saying so.

We learned that 7 a.m. subcommittee meetings are better than 6:30 a.m. subcommittee meetings, and that if you want to stay in the General Assembly building real late into the evening, submit legislation that will be heard in the Courts of Justice Committee.

We learned bipartisanship works but controversy makes headlines. Sometimes, copy that is silly, inane and mind-bogglingly dumb appears underneath such headlines only because it's so stunningly accurate.

But, to be serious for a moment, we learned the General Assembly is made up of some of the best people we have ever known -- who represent the best state in the nation -- and that the moments you cherish the most are when you reflect on those you helped who will never know your name.

Oh, there is one last thing. We learned that if you really want to get things done in Richmond, you should listen more than you speak, work for others and not for yourself, and be as nice as you can to everyone you meet. Basically, follow the Golden Rule. It works.

Kris Amundson is a Democratic delegate from Fairfax. Chris Saxman is a Republican delegate from Staunton.

By Stephen Stromberg  | July 28, 2009; 2:16 PM ET
Categories:  Va. Politics  
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