Virginia's General Assembly pushes bills designed for the polls
Monday, February 7, 2011; 9:33 PM
RICHMOND - They look and sound like any other of the thousands of bills that work their way through the Virginia General Assembly. They carry the usual sequential numbers and titles. They speak in the same dry, precise language of the law.
But they are often more symbolic than practical, they almost always involve highly divisive and emotional topics, and they are usually crafted, like verbal bombs, with the hope that they will explode on a political opponent at election time.
Lawmakers call them "brochure bills," and they know that they have a better chance of appearing on a campaign mailing or an attack ad than arriving on the governor's desk. Many fail to survive the journey from the Republican-controlled House to the Democratic-led Senate, and vice-versa - a trip all bills must have made before crossover Tuesday.
Although there is seldom any shortage of such bills during the annual legislative session in Richmond - or Washington, for that matter - this is an election year, with all 140 seats of the Virginia General Assembly up for grabs, so everybody knows that the brisk, 46-day session offers one last chance for lawmakers to define themselves for voters or, perhaps even better, define their opponents. The floor debates over the measures can last for hours, but when it comes time to vote, the ayes and nays are all but predictable - and will sound more like "nyah, nyah" on the campaign trail.
Like pornography, lawmakers sometimes have trouble defining what a brochure bill is, although everyone says he knows one when he sees it - especially if it's from someone in the other party. And, of course, what might be a brochure bill to a Republican is a fight worth taking on for a Democrat, and the other way around.
"I think for the most part, they're more symbolic than real," said Quentin Kidd, a professor of government at Christopher Newport University.
"It's a bill designed to be used as an advertisement in the next election," said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond's law school.
House Minority Leader Ward Armstrong (D-Henry) said the GOP scored first. Less than a week after the annual session convened, the Republican-dominated House rammed through a measure that would enshrine Virginia's "right-to-work" law in its Constitution, thereby making permanent the state's traditional wariness toward labor unions.
"I guess everybody can now stake up their position and go back to their base and say, 'We gave you a little red meat,' " Armstrong scolded in the floor debate. "In the meantime, there's an awful lot of folks in this commonwealth that aren't working. There's an awful lot of kids who want to go to college and there aren't enough slots left, and there's an awful lot of potholes that haven't been filled. But, I guess we can waste a little more time doing stuff like this."
But Del. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said it's easy to be cynical about the bills.
"So-called brochure bills get made fun of all the time around here, because those of us who have been here for any length of time understand that there are some bills that take on a more symbolic position than one of substance," Gilbert said. But he said they also represent important efforts by one side or the other to keep driving for a goal that might not yet be in sight - to fight the good fight, as he sees it.
"And if we keep a particular issue on the public radar screen, and on the radar of the General Assembly, we might have a different makeup of the other body and those pieces of legislation might advance," Gilbert said. "If we were to sit back and do nothing on things that were important to us but may be futile at the moment, then we would do a disservice to the issue by letting it go unmentioned for years at a time."