One lawmaker spent the meeting alternately blowing up and deflating a green balloon. Another discussed in loving detail the golf game he'd played the day before. No votes were taken. Indeed, most subcommittee members could barely concentrate on the alleged business at hand: the cluttered table before them, strewn with maps of various plans to recarve Virginia's 10 congressional districts.
"They ought to give us kazoos," joked the balloon-wielding delegate, Shenandoah Republican Clinton Miller, "so we can all blow when we come across a plan we like."
So it went yesterday morning in the ninth-floor map room of the General Assembly Building during a rudderless, chaotic House of Delegates subcommittee meeting that epitomized as well as anything the comedy of confusion and errors marking the Virginia legislature's two-week special session.
"The difference between the General Assembly and a kindergarten is that the Assembly has no adult supervision," said University of Virginia political scientist and election analyst Larry Sabato. "They certainly proved it this time."
The session was supposed to be a historic occasion devoted to overriding gubernatorial vetoes and reshaping the state's 140 legislative and 10 congressional districts. But last week no vetoes were overturned -- in fact, only one was even brought up for a vote. And the redistricting session that was supposed to be wrapped up in three days dragged on for eight and recessed with no agreement on congressional redistricting.
Last week may have been frustrating for the lawmakers. This week proved embarrassing as well. On Monday the House subcommittee came up with a reapportionment plan that pleased almost all incumbents but turned out to include 101 delegates -- one more than the law allows. By Tuesday, the panel had cleared up that problem, but approved a plan so out of line with state population figures that many immediately conceded that it would fail inevitable court challenges. It passed the House on Wednesday, then the Senate.
Constitutional problems notwithstanding, no one appeared ready to stop the plan. Not House Speaker A. L. Philpott, even though he acknowledged that some districts fell far shy of principles of equal representation set by the Supreme Court. Nor Gov. John N. Dalton, who signed the bill today despite his private prediction it would fail a court test.
Many blamed Philpott and other House leaders for refusing to insist on a plan that would pass constitutional muster. Instead, they left the task to the Privileges and Elections Committee, which lacking strong leadership from Chairman John Gray, quickly fractured along both regional and personal lines.
"The leadership's basic mistake was to allow the process to become Balkanized," said Sabato. "They ended up with a jumble that had no statewide or party perspective."
The result was that instead of producing one plan, the committee was confronted with at least half a dozen that emerged from a multitude of closed-door sessions between small groups of lawmakers. "You couldn't even get into the men's room . . . there were so many little meetings going on," said Del. Raymond Robrecht (R-Salem), adding "If anybody thinks what we're doing is in the best interests of the state, they're crazy."
The result was also not necessarily in the best interests of the Democratic Party, which dominates both legislative houses. Because the lawmakers concentrated on protecting themselves and fellow incumbents of both parties, critics say, they forfeited a golden opportunity to regain lost ground at the expense of the Republicans.
"They just basically made a decision to protect their friends," said Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington). "We could have drawn a lot of districts to sock it to the Republicans. When [Democrats] have lost the governor's seat in three straight elections, lost 9 of 10 congressional seats and two Senate seats, it's time to start fighting back. This is not Sunday school, it's politics."
Republicans suggested other motivations for the lack of aggressive partisanship. "Don't forget they knew we had a Republican governor on the third floor who was prepared to veto what they did if they came down too hard on us," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan (R-Fairfax).
Instead, the reapportionment plans passed by both the House and Senate are likely to do more favors for Republican incumbents than for Democrats. Because of population shifts from Virginia's more Democratic urban areas such as Arlington, Richmond, and Norfolk, to the more Republican suburbs of Fairfax and Henrico counties and Virginia Beach, the House plan guarantees the political demise of at least four Democratic delegates while doing no visible harm to any GOP incumbents.
Even while eschewing partisanship, the session may prove a harbinger of more partisan days to come. The younger maverick House Democrats, led by Stambaugh, Portsmouth Del. Johnny Joannou, Roanoke's Richard Cranwell and Scott County's Ford Quillen, still plan to force an April 29 showdown on a congressional redistricting scheme that would radically redraw lines all over Virginia to give Democrats a chance to retake five of the seats they have lost to the GOP.
By the time reapportionment rolls around again in 1991, should Democrats remain in the majority, those same mavericks are likely to be running the House -- and planning for Republican heads to roll.
Partisanship was not the only ingredient the session lacked; planning was another. Legislative staff aides said the leadership decided against buying a computer to digest population data and produce a balanced redistricting scheme because of the price tag. Instead, the committee members hammered out the plans on their hand calculators, leaving them vulnerable to gaffes such as the 101 delegates plan, and leaving other lawmakers with little to do during the two weeks.
Some lawyers worked on court cases while sitting in their legislative offices. Non-lawyers went shopping. Still others watched disgustedly as the redistricting process unfolded.
"Any resemblance between this [House] plan and representative government is purely accidental," said Del. Jefferson Stafford (R-Giles). "I think we haven't done our job and I don't think we would do it if we were here three more months."