Va. House Speaker Howell might have broken rule with GOP response from chamber

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

RICHMOND -- House Speaker William J. Howell appeared to have broken his chamber's own rules when he allowed Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell to deliver the Republican response to the president's State of the Union address from the House of Delegates' floor last week.

Rule 82 forbids the use of the chamber for a purpose other than House business unless the full House or Rules Committee votes to allow it.

C. Richard Cranwell, a House member for 30 years and now chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party, said Howell (R-Stafford) should apologize to the people of Virginia.

"It didn't sit right with me," Cranwell said. "That chamber is for the conduct of the people's business. What Bob McDonnell did there was not part of the people's business."

Rule 82 reads: "The Hall of the House of Delegates shall be used for no other purpose than the sessions of the House and for meetings of the committees and members of the legislature on public affairs except by vote of the House or the Rules Committee or with the approval of the Speaker when the House is not in session."

Howell said he had the authority to allow McDonnell to use the chamber because the speech took place after 10 p.m. when the House had already adjourned for the day.

"I don't think it's a big deal," Howell said. "The guy's the governor of the state."

House Clerk Bruce Jamerson said House rules do not outline any repercussions for violators. Delegates can challenge Howell, the arbitrator of the rules in the House, but the only way the House can overrule his decision is with 51 votes.

In recent years, other House speakers have allowed the House chamber to be used by speakers, including former vice president Al Gore in 1997.

McDonnell gave a 12-minute speech to about 250 family members, friends and donors in the state's historic Capitol as he attempted to differ from venues in past years in which rebuttal speakers appeared alone.

The event cost about $30,000. It was paid for by the Republican Governors Association, political action committees for McDonnell and U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell.

McDonnell's communications director, Tucker Martin, asked Howell's chief of staff, G. Paul Nardo, for permission to use the chamber. Martin said McDonnell, who spent 14 years in the House, did not know about the rules.

House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong (D-Henry) said he did not mind that McDonnell used the chamber but would have preferred for the speech to have been handled another way.

"What made me wince just a little bit was that on television it looked like it's the House of Delegates listening to the governor speak and cheering the governor on when he takes an opposing position to the president of the United States," he said.

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