Residents of the District of Columbia could read the top story across yesterday's first Metro page with relative equanimity. But every other citizen of the United States who read it had to be troubled by the implications in that account.
The story was about the final hours of the current session of the Virginia General Assembly, and ostensibly was of interest only to Virginians. But for most Americans it was also the story of how legislation is passed or killed in their own state legislatures.
"We might have been better off not to meet at all," complained Del. David Brickley (D-Prince William). "This session started off with such promise, but it's ended up a disgrace to ordinary citizens. Except for aid to local education, we accomplished nothing but special-interest legislation."
Fairfax Sen. Richard L. Saslaw said, "If the object of government is to represent the will of the people, it hasn't worked very well here in this session. We failed to adopt any legislation to benefit the rank and file population."
Several members of the legislature conceded that "mistakes" were made because not enough time was available for the proper consideration and drafting of legislation. For example, the House overwhelmingly approved a measure that contained what staff writers Glenn Frankel and Pat Bauer called "a provision that some lawyer-legislators predicted could render Virginia's entire death penalty statute unconstitutional." The legislature had to make some last-minute changes in the bill before it was fit to be sent on to the governor.
Fairfax Sen. Adelard L. Brault, dean of the Northern Virginia delegation, declared, "It was absolutely outrageous that we simply were not given enough time to conduct the business of the state." Brault said many bills that passed contained technical errors and will have to be amended next year and many good bills failed because there wasn't enough time to act on them.
One who does not live in Virginia might be tempted to shrug his shoulders and say, "That's their problem. It doesn't affect me."
But it does affect most Americans because most Americans live in states that are also poorly served by their state legislatures. The Maryland legislature, for example, has a reputation for being more responsive to special interests than to the public interest.
During the years that the power of the federal government was growing steadily and the power of the state governments was waning, we were complacent about the failure of state legislatures to "represent the will of the people."
But that trend began to change a few years ago, and Ronald Reagan's election as president underscored the new direction in which we are moving. A conscious effort is now being made to return governmental powers and functions to the states. But the machinery of government at the state level is not yet adequate to handle this expanded responsibility.
In the District of Columbia, things work somewhat better. Politicians appear to have a greater awareness of what the people want, and the people appear to have a greater awareness of which politicians are doing their jobs properly.
I do not know why state legislatures do not achieve the same rapport with their constituents. The best I can do is mention several items that might be worth considering.
"Nearness" to the seat of government does not appear to be a major factor. Most Americans have a working knowledge of who represents them in Congress and what those representatives do for or against their interests.
Voters may know more about Congress than about their state legislatures because television covers Congress more thoroughly. Some newspapers also offer skimpy coverage of state legislatures, but even The Washington Post, which does better than most, doesn't cover everything local legislatures do. And if we did, many subscribers would not read such detailed stories.
The short time allocated to state legislative sessions does appear to be a significant factor in determining which measures will be passed or bottled up. Perhaps the sessions should be longer or more frequent.
If legislators (many of them lawyers) can't devote more time to their legislative duties because salaries are too low, perhaps salaries should be increased and more hours in attendance demanded in exchange. A low-salaried state legislator who doesn't serve contituents is no bargain.