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'Droopy Drawers' Bill Exposes House-Senate Enmity

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2005; Page VA04

There is virtually no chance of a budget stalemate this year. There have been no tax rallies -- for or against -- on the Capitol grounds, and words such as "mendacity" and "duplicity" and "liar" have not been uttered in public. One half-expects the General Assembly to clasp hands and sing "Kumbaya."

Don't hold your breath.

True, legislative nerves are not as raw and exposed as they were during last year's tax fight. Scratch the surface, however, and you'll find that relations between members of the House of Delegates and the Senate are as poor as ever.

That was most obvious during last week's "droopy drawers" debacle.

Senators apparently took offense at the notoriety the state was getting from a bill submitted by Del. Algie T. Howell Jr. (D-Norfolk) to ban low-riding pants. Headlines such as "An Embarrassment of Britches" drove the oh-so-proper senators crazy.

For a moment, the senators dropped all pretense of respect for their House colleagues. At an emergency meeting called to quickly kill Howell's bill, their contempt was barely concealed.

"I know that his intentions were in the right place," Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) said of Howell. "I'm sorry he didn't receive more appropriate advice and guidance from the more senior legislators in the House."

Sen. John S. Edwards (D-Roanoke) said, "It's up to the Senate, perhaps using more mature judgment, to do the right thing."

But it was the finger-wagging senators who were anything but mature that day. They called the special meeting of the Courts of Justice Committee to order even as the House was debating the budget, and when Howell declined to abandon that important vote, committee Chairman Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach) went ahead without him.

Stolle said that Howell refused to attend the meeting even though the House was in a recess and despite having said he would appear. Howell said that the recess was almost over and that he told Stolle they'd probably be done in a half-hour or so.

"My first responsibility is to be here and vote on the budget," Howell said later. Asked what he thought about the Senate's treatment of him, he said it was "a discourtesy."

It was more than that. The Virginia legislature operates these days on principles of basic fairness, principles that were all but nonexistent decades ago, when the Democrats held huge majorities and ruled the General Assembly.

One of those principles is that legislators are given a chance to advocate for and defend their bills, especially when a bill passed by one chamber is taken up in a committee of the other chamber.

Stolle said he later told Howell that he would take up the bill again if he wanted. Even so, just imagine for a moment if the shoe were on the other foot, if Republicans in the House of Delegates had taken up and killed a senator's bill -- no matter how silly-sounding -- without even giving the senator a chance to appear. And imagine that they did so during the Senate's floor debate on the state budget.

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