The Virginia General Assembly is a part-time gig. Classified as a “hybrid system” by the National Conference of State Legislatures, the oldest democratic governing body in the Western Hemisphere only convenes for a month or two, depending on the numbered year. Most legislators have second jobs in their off-season, as the income from their legislative seat is not sufficient to cover a full year of living expenses.
The 2021 Legislative Session was one of the most important in recent memory. Convening Jan. 13, lawmakers met in the aftermath of the domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol and amid an ongoing attempt by former President Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans to overturn the results of a free and fair election. On the docket this session were issues of racial justice, coronavirus relief and economic support, gun reform and marijuana legalization.
Despite the unprecedented context and dire issues at hand, Virginia’s government sprinted toward the end of the session Feb. 27 — just 46 days after it began. While the originally scheduled 30-day session could have been extended up to a total of 60 days — as has been the case every year since 1971 — the Virginia GOP torpedoed the plan in November last year. The GOP’s refusal to extend the session is almost certainly tied to an effort to undermine Democrats ahead of the 2021 gubernatorial race, and it has dire consequences for Virginians. A shorter session means it’s more difficult to pass desperately needed legislation such as aid packages for coronavirus vaccine distribution or reopening schools.
This isn’t the first time the Virginia GOP has weaponized the General Assembly for political gain. In the wake of the Virginia Beach mass shooting in 2019, Governor Northam convened a special legislative session to formulate and pass gun reform in the Commonwealth. Republicans — then in control of the legislature — adjourned after 90 minutes and with zero pieces of legislation entertained.
The GOP’s political theater tactics would not have been a concern if the General Assembly was full-time. The legislative session would be year-round, and extensions or special sessions would not be necessary.
The part-time nature of the General Assembly is intended to preserve a citizen legislature. The thought goes that if legislators work regular jobs and live as regular citizens in addition to their role as legislators, they will be closer to their constituents and have a better understanding of what the Commonwealth needs. This sounds rosey on paper, but citizen legislatures are insufficient for the contemporary period. Plenty of legislators are already experts in their respective fields and translate this expertise into their policymaking, but they are forced to legislate on a timer. Removing the timer — making the General Assembly a year-round job — will allow them to focus more thoroughly on policy and the Commonwealth’s future.
Concerns over elevated costs for a year-round General Assembly — including higher salaries for lawmakers — are easily addressed. The Commonwealth is constitutionally required to have a balanced budget each fiscal year, and our current budget surplus is approximately $730 million. Expanding the term of the General Assembly to cover most of the calendar year would not result in significant financial strain on the Commonwealth or its budget.
Additionally and more importantly, the General Assembly must meet year-round so that legislators can quickly address issues critical to the Commonwealth and respond to crises in a timely manner. While the Governor can always call a special session, we have seen how the opposition will respond if they do not agree with the special session’s purpose. Virginians should not have to wait weeks or months to see coronavirus relief, racial justice legislation or infrastructure support.
The bottom line is that the General Assembly must transition to a full-time legislature. Virginia — home to one of the country’s most diverse geographies and fastest-growing urban corridors — faces a unique set of challenges. From inequitable healthcare access amid the pandemic, to the threat of rising seas on our coastal regions and the centuries of racial injustice for Virginians of color, the issues we face demand continuous debate and responsive policy. Lives are on the line. We need professional legislators at the helm. We need a full-time General Assembly.
Noah Strike is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.