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Now Virginia's Parties Really Face Off

Before all the shouting dies down in Richmond on March 8, you can expect Virginia legislators to act on something like 3,000 bills. (Not to worry, far fewer than 1,000 of them are designed to find creative new ways to punish illegal immigrants.)

But the subtext of many of those bills will be this year's new political dynamic in the state capital--the Democratic takeover of the Senate and the Republicans' last stand in the House, where they hold a smaller but still firm hold on power. As the session began last week, the preliminaries were mostly about the two sides jostling for position. Take, for example, the battles over committee chairmanships and the rules governing subcommittees--not exactly sexy stuff, until you get into the guts of the beast.

Subcommittees would appear to be the lowest rung of elective democracy, a tool for filtering out the least worthy of legislative proposals. But as more and more bills clog the legislature each year, the subcommittee is turning into a nifty place for the ruling party silently to squash proposals from their opponents across the aisle--a power the Republicans granted to subcommittees in 2006. The beauty of killing a bill in subcommittee is that the rules say votes at that level are not to be recorded for public inspection. Last year, for example, the Republicans killed off a Democratic proposal for a statewide smoking ban in restaurants and bars, voting it down in subcommittee so it never got so much as a public hearing in full committee. And there's no record of the subcommittee vote, so no individual lawmaker has to be accountable to his constituents for that vote. Last year, 603 bills were killed in subcommittee, up from 459 in 2006.

Last week, the Democrats tried once again to force the Republicans to record votes in subcommittees. Del. Ken Plum (D-Fairfax) argued that since legislators routinely tell the state's other public bodies to do their work in the sunshine, it stands to reason that the state's elected lawmakers should let voters know exactly where they stand on each bill. "The public's right to know is a basic tenet of all we do," the delegate said.

But House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) replied that keeping track of subcommittee votes would muss up the works. Goodness, he argued, if you start recording the votes, it could take so much time and effort that next thing you know, we'd need to have a full-time legislature, and certainly the Founders didn't want anything as horrific as that. "We can't spend countless hours on bills that have no chance," Griffith said.

The move to force recorded votes was killed by a 54-45 vote, pretty much along party lines.

(That wasn't the only successful effort by the Republicans to keep their actions in the shadows: The House also rejected a Democratic proposal to open House proceedings to live telecasts. The Senate already allows both TV and webcasts of its floor action.)

If a bill does make it out of subcommittee, it becomes the job of the committee chairman to make certain that nothing gets passed that the ruling party's leadership hasn't given its blessing. With a divided legislature this year, those chairman jobs become ever more vital.

But while the party split was clear from November's election results, the new rosters of committee chairmen make even more clear the divide in Virginia between the Washington suburbs and the rest of the state. On the House side, Speaker Bill Howell of Stafford County chose only two northern Virginia delegates to run the 14 committees--Joe May of Loudoun is in charge of Transportation and Dave Albo of Fairfax will run Courts of Justice. Contrast that with Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw's decision to put fellow northern Virginians in charge of six of the Senate's 11 committees. NoVa Senators Janet Howell (Privileges and Elections), Mary Margaret Whipple (Rules), Toddy Puller (Rehabilitation and Social Services), Charles Colgan (Finance), and Patsy Ticer (Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources) will join Saslaw (Commerce and Labor) as--in the classic phrase--all-powerful committee chairmen.

The face of the Senate's chairmen is markedly different with the change in party control. Seven of the 11 chairmen are women, and four of the 11 are black. Over on the House side, it's an all-white cast, with 11 men and three women.

Preliminaries over, it's time to start churning out the sausage.

By Marc Fisher |  January 15, 2008; 7:20 AM ET
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Comments

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Marc -- If you are going to shill for the Democrats, the Post should be required to give Republicans equal time. Is there anyone at that paper with the least shred of journalistic ethics?

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | January 15, 2008 8:25 AM

When will the Democrats repeal the transportation package passed last session and replace it with a state-wide sales and gas tax increase? The Governor should not waste his energy just trying to increase the sales tax on automobile sales only. With auto sales dropping dramatically, this cannot be a reliable source of transportation revenue.

It is time for them to deliver.

Posted by: Fairfax | January 15, 2008 9:09 AM

Hey, Woodbridge - come on now, read your comment again, and ask yourself, do I have any shred of evidence that Marc Fisher is acting unethically? He's a columnist, fer crissakes. He's supposed to comment, give his views, and so on. That's kind of an important detail. And it makes your criticism easy to dismiss, and, to tell the truth, makes you sound like you don't know what you're talking about. I'm a little embarrassed for you. "Shill for the Democrats". Yeesh.

Posted by: Robert in Fredericksburg | January 15, 2008 9:12 AM

Robert,

You ask how Marc's acting unethically. Well, look closer at his column. He first states that Democrats have the majority now, but somehow it's only the Republicans that are to blame for a bill's failure to pass. Obviously some Democrats voted against the measure or else it would have passed. Why does Marc provide no breakdown of the vote? Because the facts would undermine his attacks on Republicans.

Posted by: AlvinT | January 15, 2008 9:37 AM

Correction. Republicans hold a small majority in the House

Posted by: AlvinT | January 15, 2008 9:39 AM

The Repukes have learned from our criminal-in-chief to keep everything secret. God forbid they might be held accountable for their votes to keep legislation tied up in committee or killed. When will folks learn that Repukes are only in it for themselves, corporations and their rich friends? Shame, shame.

Posted by: capone1 | January 15, 2008 10:25 AM

"Well, look closer at his column. He first states that Democrats have the majority now, but somehow it's only the Republicans that are to blame for a bill's failure to pass. Obviously some Democrats voted against the measure or else it would have passed."

The Democrats won control of only the Senate, not the House, and the new legislature is just starting.

Therefore:

1. Any bill in the House can be voted down by the Republicans a party line vote AND IT WAS 54-45. That is cited in the article you didn't bother to read carefully.

2. It would not have been possible for the Democrats to pass a bill in the Senate last year BECAUSE THEY WERE IN THE MINORITY.

Sheesh. Think before you type.

BB

Posted by: Re: AlvinT | January 15, 2008 10:30 AM

Marc, please DO give more time to the Republicans. If more light is shown on the idiot, a/k/a Del. Albo, he won't be elected to dog catcher at any time in the future.

Posted by: Fairfax, VA | January 15, 2008 12:33 PM

AlvintT, I welcome your willingness to go back and forth about the particulars of Fisher's point. And I think BB makes a good shot across your bow, IMHO. But my point is that accusing a writer of unethical behavior is beyond the pale. Fine, so he wrote something you don't agree with, or he wrote something that you think spins the facts in a way that you wouldn't. But that doesn't come close, not even remotely close, in fact nowhere near close, to meeting the commonly accepted standard of "unethical."
Now I realize that here in Blogworld people are willing to fire off such accusations willy-nilly (what does willy-nilly mean? Dunno) but it's my particular pleasure to call people like you out. You say it's unethical? Let's find out if you can defend that accusation. If you can't, prepare to blush.

Posted by: Robert in Fredericksburg | January 15, 2008 1:58 PM

BB,

Are you stupid?

First, re your second point, where is there any mention of the Va Senate, or anything taking place last year in my comment? Here's a hint: don't criticize someone for their poor reading comprehension when you make an even bigger mistake in your response.

Second, check the breakdown in the HOUSE before you comment on the vote totals. Here's a second hint: there are not 54 Republicans in the VA house this session.

Robert,

First, thanks for the rational response unlike the dumba$$ Robert. As to your points, I guess it depends on how you define unethical. Is this one post by Marc "unethical"? Well, you only asked for a "shred of evidence". I supplied that by pointing out that Marc sought to place blame on one party without (i) acknowledging the other party's partial participation or (ii) linking to or providing the actual voting breakdown for readers to make their own, independent assessment. Obviously, a columnist is supposed to express an opinion, but is it too much to ask that that opinion (at least for someone employed by a major newspaper) be supported by facts.

But to answer your question, by itself, this post may not be unethical, but as a pattern of Marc's consistent insults at Virginia generally and its elected representatives specifically, it does supply further evidence of his bias. However, as defined by the Post, liberal bias is not unethical.

Posted by: AlvinT | January 15, 2008 9:23 PM

But that's the point - what you call bias others can fairly call viewpoint. Now, you may not care for it - and may think that he doesn't do it well, i.e., leaving out inconvenient facts, etc. But to him, those facts are left out because they don't support the larger truth that he sees. What's wrong with that? Nothing. We all do the same thing.

And, let me say plainly that, from a columnist, liberal bias or conservative bias or whatever isn't unethical. It just isn't. From a reporter, sure. Collumnists are free to poke people like us in the eye all the time, and they do. But it's still fun. Nothing makes me feel as happy in the morning as when I read a George Will column and say to myself, man, I am so much smarter than him. Good times.

Posted by: Robert in Fredericksburg | January 15, 2008 11:21 PM

Re: AlvinT

Last year is relevant, because the column covered both the previous legislative session and the upcoming one. You didn't bother to differentiate in your post and so both are fair game. But, let's go back to your post. You can hardly accuse me of failing to read when I quote you.

"Obviously some Democrats voted against the measure or else it would have passed."

Republicans currently have a 54-44 majority in the House with 2 independents. The measure that was voted down 54-45 in a vote "largely along party lines".

It was a 54-45 vote. Control is 54-44. Explain how Democrats could pass that legislation without Republican support. Your evidence of bias is that Marc called it a party line vote and the vote totals differed from parties by 1 vote.

As long as you're moving onto other matters, pray tell, give me some of Marc's insults of us Virginians. I expect direct quotes. The only insults I see in the column or thread are coming from you.

BB

Posted by: Fairlington Blade | January 16, 2008 4:15 PM

BB,

1. There are NOT 54 republicans in the virginia house of delegates. As I stated before, check the breakdown BEFORE you post.
http://dela.state.va.us/dela/MemBios.nsf/MWebsiteREP?OpenView

2. Thank you for answering my original question to you. Even though I only addressed the voting on one specific bill, you're actually believe that I should explicitly "differentiate" my comment from separate points raised by Marc. Obviously, the answer was yes, a fact further reinforced by your belief that I'm going to search his posts to supply direct quotes to you.

Posted by: AlvinT | January 16, 2008 4:45 PM

Re: AlvinT

First as to my diligence. I based my numbers on what appeared to be a credible Wikipedia item. I am willing to allow that there may be some error there, so I took a look at the link you cited (couldn't you have gone with something with numbers?) Anyway, I counted 53 Republicans, 44 Democrats, and 2 Independents. I was curious as to why only 99 delegates showed up when Wikipedia gave an even 100, so I dumped everything into an Excel spreadsheet (I may have trouble counting, but I'm a whiz with a spreadsheet). District #99 is absent from the official web site and is listed as vacant. I have a vague recollection of a recent death, so the discrepancy is reasonable. So, you say check the breakdown before I post. I did. There was a minor discrepancy and I assure that I'll send an edit up to Wikipedia.

Back to the numbers. The vote that Marc cited was 54-45. There are 53 Republicans, 44 Democrats, and 2 Independents. NOW, would you mind telling me how the Democrats could have won that on a party line vote?

Here is my honest take on matters. I'm sure you're a decent guy or lady. However, you leveled a serious charge at someone. For a political journalist, a charge of bias is as bad as it gets. I expect EJ Dionne to give me a liberal perspective and George Will to give me a conservative perspective (I expect a hatchet job from Robert Novak). For any of the trail columnists, I expect interesting and entertaining commentary, taking aim at both sides. Bias from such a columnist is a serious as theft by an accountant, suborning perjury by a lawyer, fabrication by a scientist. The last of these is my profession and there was regrettably one of the most serious of these in my specialty (look up Hendrik Schoen). So, I think your charge, unless backed up by hard evidence, is slanderous.

I was reading another of the Post blogs on the same day that our war of words started. The columnist posited that Rudy's Florida strategy might actually work. One of the posters sent a shrill comment that called the columnist a schill for Rudy.

Imagine. You're at the local bar and one of the regulars comments, "You know, I think Rudy might actually pull it off." I can see giving the guy some guff, but calling him a shill? Do you call into question the ethics of friends who disagree with you politically? I fall into the center-left category. Socially liberal, fiscally conservative (and very much pro-nuclear power). One of my closest friends is a staunch conservative and we've had many spirited arguments through the years. I never questioned his ethics nor he mine (he did hang me with the nickname "The Liberal"; he should meet a few of my DC friends.

This sparked a bit of an outpouring. I am sick to death of nasty charges leveled at professionals. My guess is you'd crash and burn at this job. Marc is an outstanding professional. Don't you know he's the guy who broke the Pants story? It was one of the most horrible abuses of our legal system. He exposed it. So, if there's a little more snark in his commentary than you like, I think it's a small price to pay for the insight of someone who really cares about our community.

I'll sign off now with my real name. (BB was sign-off, it means buh-bye or buckyball)

Paul Lane
Alexandria, Virginia

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