Last Friday's votes in the Virginia House of Delegates tell much about how that legislative body has changed in recent years and how it has not.
The most publicized action was the refusal of the delegates, 62-36, to change their rules to insure speedy consideration by the full House of any U.S. Constitutional amendment proposed by Congress.
The immediate purpose of the proposal was to force a vote on ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. It has been kept off the floor of both the House and the Senate by disapproving committees since its first introduction in 1973. The full Senate is scheduled to debate ratification for the first time today.
The decisive refusal of the House to take the issue away from its Priviliges and Elections Committee no doubt has intensified the belief of some civil liberatarians that the Virginia House holds a higher regard for its rules and traditions than for human rights.
However, proponents of full debate on fundamental issues can take cheer from one development on Friday that was almost obscured by high feelings over ERA. For the first time since it adopted written rules in 1797, the House debated and voted on amendments to them that had not first been approved by its Committee.
Sponsors of the proposal to force votes on constitutional amendments were certain they would lose in committee, so they invoked House Rule 81 and laid their amendment directly before the Speaker.
Rule 81, as House Speaker John Warren Cooke (D-Mathews) told the delegates on Friday, has never been fully used before. On one previous occasion, he said, a delegate did bypass the Rules Committee and lay a proposed rules change before the Speaker. However, he added, "the issue never matured."
His remark brought smiles to the faces of delegates who know how a House Speaker less gentle than Cooke could use his powers to keep an unwanted proposal from "maturing." Cooke, however, has fostered a moderate change of climate in the House since he became speaker in 1968 and it is not surprising that two rule amendments he opposed - the proposal to require House debate of constitutional amendments and another to give the House more time to debate budget bills - were considered by the full membership on Friday.
It is also not surprising that both proposals were beaten. The climate in the House has changed to the extent that all the delegates might debate procedural changes not approved by the Rules Committee, but it has not changed so drastically that all procedural restraints on debate have been tossed overboard.
There were scant signs of remorse in the House chamber over Virginia's slow acceptance of constitutional change. The Assembly has never ratified amendments authorizing the U.S. income tax, popular election of U.S. Senators, the right of Washington residents to vote for President or the elimination of the poll tax.
Women's suffrage was ratified by the Assembly, but not until 1952 - almost 32 years after it became law.
The proposal before the House on Friday would have mandated consideration by all delegates of U.S. Constitutional amendments only 20 days after their referrals to committees. Delegate James M. Thomson (D-Alexandria) called the proposed time limit "ludicrous." He conceded that it would be possible for the House to subject amendments to long studies under the proposed rule, but he carried the day by raising the spector of precipitous action.
He did not make the point, but the history of the ERA debate in Virginia supports his position. When Congress proposed the amendment - the House in 1971 and the Senate in 1972 - all 12 Representatives and Senators from Virginia voted for it.
It was well after the Congressional votes that a formidable body of conservative opposition to ERA developed across the country and especially in Virginia. It seems likely that such Virginia conservatives as Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. and former Rep. Watkins M. Abbitt might have taken a different approach to ERA in later years.
A 20-day rule in effect in the Virginia House in 1973 could have forced consideration of ERA before the forces of opposition and support had time to develop. If it had, Virginia might to develop. If it had, Virginia might by today have become the third state to rescind its ERA vote rather than one of two refusing to bring it to a vote.
Of course, this is not 1973. All the arguments for and against ERA have by now been made and the forces for and against the amendment clearly identified. What is needed now is not a 20-day rule, but a seven-year rule.
The states have seven years to ratify a constitutional amendment proposed by Congress. Even the Virginia House of Delegates might be ready for a rule requiring a vote, up or down, in the seventh Assembly session after a Congressional proposal is made.
This would give the opponents of an amendment time to use the committee process, if they can, to slow ratification. It would give them time to use the electoral process, if they can, to change the membership of the Assembly before a final vote is taken.
But it would guarantee, in the end, that a fundamental issue of human rights is finally addressed by all the representatives of Virginia's five million people.