RICHMOND — Much of a legislative session is spent on matters that never become laws. Whether that’s a waste of time or a crucial part of the democratic process came up for unusual debate Thursday after a committee chairman in the House of Delegates decided that it was time to move things along.
Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), who chairs the House Courts of Justice committee, decided that seven bills dealing with thorny issues of constitutional law were simply not worth discussing because they’ll never be enacted.
The bills covered weighty topics such as abortion, immigration sanctuaries and same-sex marriage, and came from Republicans and Democrats.
In extraordinary letters sent to each bill sponsor, Albo essentially told them to get real.
“As you know, the Committee historically kills bills associated with liberal politics, and the Governor vetoes bills associated with conservative politics,” Albo wrote. “If we did spend the effort in hearing these bills, then we would have much less time to review the bills that actually have a chance to become law.”
The General Assembly is controlled by Republicans, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe is a Democrat who has promised to veto any measures that restrict access to abortion. Of the 2,172 bills introduced in the House and Senate last year, 811 were passed by the full Assembly. McAuliffe vetoed 32.
Albo notedthat one of his subcommittees met until 10 o’clock Monday night. If he took up the seven bills, the soonest they could get on the docket was Friday. That meeting would take eight hours, he said. Then the full committee would have to meet over the weekend.
So, he told them, he’s not hearing the bills.
Del. Jennifer Boysko (D-Fairfax) was so flummoxed by Albo’s letter that she held a news conference.
“I really struggled with whether or not to speak out,” she said, “but I felt like this was important enough.”
Boysko said she had never seen such an open acknowledgment of the machinery of power. “I was a bit shocked by the fact that they would make it so clear . . . that what is a constitutional issue is not important enough to be addressed,” she said.
Her “Whole Woman’s Health Act” was aimed at bringing Virginia law into alignment with a recent Supreme Court ruling against using safety as a cover for restricting access to legal abortions. Boysko’s measure would have eliminated Virginia requirements for licensing, second opinions and extra ultrasounds, among other steps, that make it more difficult to obtain an abortion.
Several women’s health advocates joined her in denouncing Albo’s step. “I have a very simple message for Delegate Albo and his caucus: Do your job,” said Anna Scholl, the head of the ProgressVA advocacy group. “The delegates should stay here until they get the job done. Every issue is important to someone.”
But Albo countered later in an interview that his committee is wrestling with several complex matters that take a great deal of time, such as the state’s DUI law and a measure about arresting terrorists. The work has to be done by next Tuesday, when the House has to send its bills to the Senate.
“Should I be spending time on bills that will never become law?” Albo said.
Through a spokesman, House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) defended Albo’s decision, saying such tactics have been used before.
“When the Democrats were in control, they would wait until the last day and adjourn without hearing pieces of legislation,” Howell’s aide Christopher West said. “We’re under a tight deadline and there are a lot of bills that need to be heard before crossover.”
Albo conceded that it’s unusual to be so frank. “I wanted to be upfront with people,” he said. “I didn’t want to do anything secretly.”
The General Assembly is in the middle of a short, 45-day session. Next year’s is 60 days. Boysko and the others can have their hearing then, Albo said.
“We’ll pick a Friday,” he said, “and put up eight hours and let people have their day.”