There were more than a few Virginia lawmakers who had their doubts about the bill raising the state's beer-drinking age when it arrived on the floor of the House of Delegates the other day. But the bill sailed through, propelled in part by election-year fears that the public demanded action.
"Because the public perceives we must do something," said Del. Clinton Miller (R-Shenandoah), "then do something we must."
So it has gone during the 1983 General Assembly session, a brief, 46-day affair that, until a computer balked, was supposed to end tonight. The session has been distinguished by a smorgasbord of politically popular bills, ranging from anticrime measures to beer drinking to ethics, to feed constituent appetites on the campaign trail this fall.
It has been, some lawmakers said, a session marked less by substantive achievement than by legislative gimmickery and shaped by an openly cynical attitude that the appearance of action was as important as any new laws themselves.
Miller popularized the phrase the "Age of Percpeption," which was picked up by his colleagues and repeated over and over again during the final days.
"You don't hear people asking whether the bill is right or wrong, or whether the bill is constitutional or not constitutional," he said. "It's whether the bill is perceived by the public as being proper legislation."
"We've heard a lot of talk about perceptions by the public ," added Del. Theodore Morrison (D-Newport News). "But if the perception is not accurate, then this is akin to perpetuating a fraud on the public."
The emotional debate over the beer-drinking bill was for many the perfect example. Active lobbying by a number of citizens groups, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in Northern Virginia, prompted Gov. Charles S. Robb and most legislators to embrace legislation raising the age from 18 to 21. The bill was eventually watered down to a compromise version raising the age to 19, even though dozens of legislators privately expressed doubts the new law would significantly reduce teen-age drunk driving accidents.
"I think we jumped on that and the drinking age because there's a perception that we should do something," said Del. Samuel Glasscock (D-Suffolk), who supported the higher age.
"I quite frankly don't think that raising the drinking age has a damn thing to do with the frequency of accidents or whether kids will drink," said Del. Warren G. Stambaugh (D-Arlington). "But I voted for it because I think it might keep beer out the hands of some high school students."
Then there was Teflon-coated bullet bill. Part of Robb's anticrime package, it was spawned by concerns of police organizations that such bullets could penetrate bulletproof vests. When the National Rifle Association raised opposition to an outright ban on the bullets, Robb proposed a weaker version making it a felony to use the bullets in commission of a violent offense, such as murder and armed robbery.
The measure zipped through both houses, with proponents arguing it was important for the legislature to show its concern about the problem.
Some, like Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell (R-Alexandria), found the Robb bill meaningless. "It doesn't do much good once a police officer is killed to charge the man who killed him with using the wrong kind of bullet," said Mitchell, who voted for it when in cleared the Senate on 40-to-0 vote. "Anyone who's mean enough to kill somebody is not likely to spend a lot of time worrying what kind of bullet to use."
On ethics, a perennial issue in the part-time legislature, delegates and senators approved today a new conflict-of-interest bill almost in spite of themselves. "That's a perception bill," House Majority Leader Thomas Moss (D-Norfolk) told a reporter after the bill passed by a surprising 99-to-1 vote. "You can't vote against it. You guys referring to the media would tear us apart if we voted against it."
To some, such surprisingly frank admissions reflected the increasingly politicized atmosphere of the Assembly. Thanks to the 1981 redistricting snafus, which required a special court-ordered election last year, all 100 delegates will be up for election this fall for the third year in a row. All 40 Senate seats are also up for grabs.
Some said the rash of what they called "window-dressing bills" was also a response to a vacuum. Before the session, Robb said he would not offer a large legislative agenda so the lawmakers could devote their time to the state's budget problems. But the crisis over money matters dissipated quickly once the assembly's budget committees were able to find enough new revenues tucked away in the budget to avoid large-scale spending cuts and new taxes.
"The session opened up with all this talk about a large budget crisis and you hardly hear any talk about that anymore," said House Minority Leader Vincent F. Callahan (R-Fairfax).