They call it the shad treatment, picking apart a piece of legislation the way Virginia watermen clean a shad: They remove so many bones from the bony species that what is left no longer resembles a fish.
Today state Del. C. Jefferson Stafford, a Republican from southwest Virginia, stood before a Senate committee and watched helplessly as members of the panel's Democratic majority administered "the treatment" to his controversial proposal to bar men who don't register for the draft from attending state colleges.
"I don't think I've got much left," Stafford said after the Senate Education and Health Committee stripped the bill of its toughest provisions.
Stafford submitted the proposal, labeled "the litmus test of patriotism," last year while planning to challenge Rep. Frederick Boucher, a freshman Democratic lawmaker from Abingdon who has many friends among the Democratic majority in the legislature. Amid cries of partisanship, the Democrats postponed action on Stafford's measure until this year, hoping the Supreme Court would declare a similar Minnesota law unconstitutional.
The high court, however, upheld that law and yesterday Stafford and a long line of veterans' representatives were on hand to remind the committee of that ruling and to champion Stafford's bill.
"All this bill says is that if you reap the benefits the commonwealth is giving you, you've got to adhere to the law," Stafford told the committee.
"We cannot take away the privilege of education from these young men when we have convicted felons who we are paying to educate in jail," countered Sen. Thomas J. Michie Jr., a Democrat from Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia.
"It encourages students to rat on each other," said Bill Faw, pastor of the West Richmond Church of the Brethren.
In the end, the committee deleted provisions that would have denied men who fail to register for the draft admission to state colleges or access to state student financial aid. It sent to the Senate floor a bill that would make men who are convicted of failing to register for the draft ineligible for state student financial aid.
Stafford said he hoped the Senate would restore the bill's tougher provisions. If it doesn't, he said he hopes he can get changes in a conference committee of the Senate and the House, which last year approved his version.
Opponents charged that Stafford's bill would unduly punish men who have not been convicted of failing to register and would put college administrators in the position of law enforcement officers.
Gordon Davies, staff director for the Virginia Council of Higher Education offered once such scenario: "You're opening the potential for mischief. I see the potential for a fraternity rival calling about pledges of another fraternity."
Stafford said the committee's changes make his bill almost meaningless because only a handful of men nationwide have been convicted of failing to register for the draft.
"Very few are tried, it is very expensive, the government just doesn't get around to it," said Stafford.