For two months or less every year, Virginia legislators convene in Richmond to carry on a tradition that began nearly 300 years ago in the Tidewater village of Jamestown. It is the annual session of the General Assembly.
In those three centuries, the General Assembly has changed greatly. A small band of elite planters has been gradually replaced by 140 men and women from all backgrounds; the state laws, once summarized in a few slim books, now fill more than 30 black-bound volumes; and the passion that led Jefferson to declare "all men are created equal" has been transformed into a conservative bent that sends proposals such as the Equal Rights Amendment to an early death.
But some things have not changed. Being a legislator is still a part-time job; this year, for instance, the Assembly met for only 39 days, in what was considered a lackluster session. And the legislative process itself is still agonizingly slow.
Del. Warren G. Stambaugh, an Arlington Democrat, tries to be philosophical about the time-consuming negotiations that invariably accompany major legislative changes.
"The big issues take time, and probably they should," Stambaugh says. "(The status quo) always has the advantage because the status quo can always point to the difficulty of change."
For instance, Virginia is just now studying the problem of brown lung, a respiratory disease that could affect thousands of state textile workers. North Carolina legislators grappled with the problem five years ago and approved a system for compensating workers with brown lung, a system that so far has been denied Virginia workers.
In Virginia, Stambaugh says, there is a tendency to move cautiously on the issue since it is a "tough one" that legislators know little about. In fact, he adds somewhat sarcastically, some workers with brown lung "will probably be dead before we get around to dealing with it."
Stambaugh, who has been a delegate for eight years, sometimes gives up in frustration over the slow-moving legislative process. This year, he was one of few delegates to champion food tax relief, and was so exasperated when that bill and other tax-cutting measures failed that he cast the only vote against the state budget on the last night of the session.
Even noncontroversial issues have a way of becoming larger than life, in the General Assembly. This year, in his first turn as chairman of the House Health Subcommittee, Stambaugh quickly found himself embroiled in an argument over a measure gruesomely nicknamed "the harvesting of the dead" bill. The proposal, which passed the Assembly, would allow pituitary glands to be removed from bodies when an autopsy is performed. The point of the bill, according to Stambaugh, was to allow the glands to be used for drugs that help retard dwarfism.
"Suddenly, I was in the middle of one of the great civil liberties battles of all time," Stambaugh complained."I had all these people (primarily the ACLU and orthodox Jews) worried about the dead bodies, and nobody worried about the dwarfs. And I wanted to help the dwarfs."
The conflict reminded Stambaugh of what he already knew: "You can't devise a law that doesn't hurt or adversely affect someone . . . nobody ever said government was going to work perfectly for everybody."
But Virginia lawmakers don't always fight their biggest battles in the House or Senate chambers. Most of them spend a good deal more energy on the telephone or at the typewriter, trying to cut through red tape and solve constituents' problems short of a new law.
"I tend to think a large proportion of the problems I get from constituents are problems that should not exist," says Del. Elise B. Heinz, an Arlington Democrat. "By and large, you can trace it back to some level short of the legislature, and because I am a lawyer, I get involved in looking up the law myself instead of foisting it off on some agency."
A case in point, Heinz says, was the constituent whose car had failed a safety inspection. He was told on a Tuesday that he had a week to make the necessary repairs without paying an additional inspection feel. But when he took his car in the following Tuesday, he was charged a second time.
"He assumed that Tuesday to Tuesday was a week, but the inspectors said that it was eight days," Heinz recalls. "At first I figured the garage was wrong, but then I got the state police regulations, and doggone if they didn't specify what was a week, and that was eight days."
Next, Heinz turnerd to the Virginia Code, which said "you could count the first or the last day but not both" in determining a regulation week. A letter to the attorney general pointing out the discrepancy between the code and police regulations convinced the police to revise their guidelines. Heinz had accomplished his purpose without introducing a bill.
"The guy never got his $4 back, but he loves me," she said.
Such small-time successes might draw ho-hums from some people, but not from constituents or the legislators who deal with the problems.
"Everybody sort of learns shortcuts to getting things done," says Del. David G. Speck (R-Alexandria), who says he has solved several constituents' problems with no more than a phone call to the right agency. "I really feel good about helping these people, and they really feel good about being helped. But I still feel uncomfortable about knowing that the system is only working because of my intervention."
Constituents also can help legislators, by pointing out broader areas of concern where changes in the law may be needed.
Del. Mary Sue Terry (D-Patrick) says several bills she introduced this year came from ideas passed on to her by her grocer, a hometown banker and a local law professor. "(Legislators) are sort of like mechanics," Terry says. "We're in a position to do a lot of fine tuning, but it's the public that ultimately tells us where the car should be going."
Sen. Clive L. DuVal II (D-Fairfax) likes to recound the time several years ago when one of his constituents was denied a credit card. The constituent was a woman who couldn't get the card without her husband's signature -- even though she was working and her husband wasn't.
"I started writing the bank and questioning their attitude, and I saw the economic discrimination that occurs, and it really woke me up," DuVal says. "It was the basis of my strong support of the Equal Rights Amendment."
Still, when it comes to "forward-looking" measures Sen. Wiley F. Mithcell Jr. (R-alexandria) believes legislators are reluctant to act.
"What constrains you is the attitude in the General Assembly that government tends to interfere with people rather than help them," Mitchell says. "That's why we have these short sessions. The feeling is that no legislation is good legislation."
But, he notes sardonically, "Each legislator comes down here with four or five exceptions to that axiom -- their own bills."
On March 30, the General Assembly reconvenes to consider the hottest political question of the year: redistricting. The political wrangling over the final outcome has been going on for months, and several weeks of public hearings have been set.
But when it comes to a vote, observers expect the decision to be made quickly -- since the people affected by the issue are the legislators themselves.