Editor: The General Assembly was called back into session on April 5 to complete work on a state budget. This extension has become somewhat routine in the past several years, and has raised media commentary in editorials and news reports suggesting that legislators should become full-time, or extend the session periods, among other ideas.
At present, another factor is that the two legislative chambers have opposite political-party majorities adding to legislative friction.
There’s a simple, elegant solution to creating a more efficient, effective and democratic General Assembly in Virginia: a unicameral body.
While preservation and conservation are hallmarks of conservatism, often those twin values may reflect a nostalgia that tends to displace reason and critical evaluation. The nation has survived political progress in the evolution of its institutions since adoption of the U.S. Constitution – e.g. direct election of senators, suffrage for women, 18-year-old old suffrage, to name a few.
Eliminating the legislative friction inherent in a two-chamber body would increase its efficiency and responsiveness to the electorate and diminish political-party partisanship seeking control in one chamber to offset any gains or losses in the other.
The advantage of part-time legislators remaining in a closer, more identifiable relationship with constituencies can also be achieved by term limits on legislative service. Increasing single terms to three years with a three-term limit would require legislators to be more responsive to campaign commitments and more immune to lobby interests. Successive limited terms provide ample time to develop levels of expertise and oversight necessary to meet voter expectations and discharge of the prime legislative functions.
A commensurate compensation scale could be enacted to attract qualified candidates. Establishing some campaign-finance reforms could further diminish reliance upon questionable or dark-money sources, as well as lobby influence.
The prospect of a unicameral legislature will evoke appeals to preserve checks and balances and slow things down. Those concerns may have existed in the post-colonial era, but have been severely diminished by modern transportation and communication capabilities. In the General Assembly, the present check-and-balance notion exists only due to different political-party majorities.
A unicameral legislature in Virginia also could improve its own effectiveness by modifying the Dillon Rule to grant more home-rule authority to localities, decreasing the number of measures requiring legislative attention while enhancing local government.
The Dillon Rule forces the General Assembly to become involved in micro-managing local issues, even as those jurisdictions have become more mature and sophisticated.
The likelihood of creating a unicameral legislature in the commonwealth may be remote, particularly as the very folks whose jobs would disappear have a deciding role in the abolition. It is conceivable, perhaps, that the body could contain 140 members, same as the combined membership of the current state Senate and House of Delegates.
Discussion of enhancements to democratic governance must begin somewhere, sending a clear signal to the governing class that it exists as a creature of the electorate.
Jim McCarthy, Herndon