Change in Rules Ruffles Feathers In the Va. House

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 16, 2008

RICHMOND, Jan. 15 -- In every session of the Virginia General Assembly, legislators introduce thousands of bills, many of which are so controversial that they die in a committee.

But this year, in a change that has angered Democrats, the Republican leaders who control the House have decided to allow bills to bypass the usual committees, potentially sending them straight to the House floor for a vote.

In this way, the GOP leaders are attempting to force Democrats to vote on controversial issues that could make them vulnerable in future elections. Already, dozens of bills about abortion, taxes, capital punishment, collective bargaining and illegal immigration have been referred to the Republican-controlled Rules Committee, which can send bills to the full House.

Democrats say they are worried that they will have to vote on the bills, even those that have no chance of passing in the full House or later in the Senate, producing a record of votes that will show up in campaign ads in the next election.

"If the bills of a certain type, these highly politically charged bills, are being dumped into the Rules Committee . . . to be a mechanism for getting the bills to the floor for a vote by everybody in the House so that perhaps those votes can be used in campaigns, that is so disappointing," Del. Kenneth R. Melvin (D-Portsmouth) said.

In previous years, the Rules Committee, which consists of leaders of both parties and is headed by the House speaker, has generally considered resolutions, studies and bills that affect how the House does business.

Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who has sole control over where bills are referred, acknowledged the procedure had changed but said the Democrats were overly concerned.

"They're really paranoid, aren't they?" he said. "Seriously, they must stay awake at night worrying about these things."

Since the 60-day legislative session began a week ago, Republicans and Democrats in the House have been squabbling over procedural issues that have led to a power struggle. Democrats gained some seats in the House in the November election, but Republicans still have a 53-44 advantage, with two independents.

House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry) said he is worried the new procedure will result in bills that will no longer be heard in committees, where delegates and staffers have expertise on a certain topic.

"All of these bills have a common theme. They are controversial," he said. "All of a sudden, you are pulling bills into [the Rules Committee], where there is not any institutional knowledge, for an apparent political purpose."

Howell said that all bills will be carefully considered and that many of those bills referred to the Rules Committee will be sent to another committee for further scrutiny. Some bills, though, could be kept in the committee, as they have been in previous years, so Republicans do not have to vote on them, avoiding potentially tough votes.

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