RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — In recent years, Virginia’s state Legislature has featured a narrow political divide. But many of its committees that play a key role in shaping legislation — not so much.
In about half of the General Assembly’s committees, membership is not based on proportional seating, creating a dynamic in which the majority party has sometimes been wildly overrepresented. Democrats who controlled the Senate with 55% of its membership — a 22-18 majority — during this year’s session wielded a 10-5 majority in the chamber’s powerful budget-writing panel, for example. Another influential committee that shapes energy and business-related bills was stacked 12-3.
It’s a practice that effectively weakens the voice of the minority and moderates who might buck the party line. It’s also one some government observers say should come to an end in January when the General Assembly — with its membership and party control to be determined in next month’s elections — convenes for the 2024 legislative session.
“That one change will help restore trust in our governing institutions. It’s not only the fair, just, and right thing to do, it’s also long overdue,” Craig Parisot, the chair of the pro-business nonprofit Virginia FREE, wrote in a recent opinion piece after the group issued a call for proportional seating on all legislative committees, subcommittees and commissions.
The Associated Press sought comment from the current and prospective leaders of both parties in both chambers about the practice.
Leaders of both parties in the House of Delegates, where the rules call for proportional representation on all committees and subcommittees but one, said they would not seek a change from the status quo next year. But in the Senate, where the panels have been unequally stacked for years, leaders either offered no comment or no firm commitment on the issue.
In the House, proportionality is a practice that’s been in place for close to 25 years.
It began after Democrats lost a long-held majority in the 1997 election, leading to two years of power sharing. Then Republicans formally adopted proportional representation in 2000 with their new majority, according to previous news accounts, and that’s been upheld even as the majority has vacillated between the two parties.
House Democratic Leader Don Scott, who is expected to become speaker if his party wins a majority next month, said he thinks the current setup has served the chamber well and he would not seek to change it.
GOP House Speaker Todd Gilbert agreed and added that the Senate has used its lack of proportionality in “pretty unfortunate and meaningful ways.”
The Senate dealt out committee slots proportionally from at least the 1970s until 2012, when a new GOP majority was ushered in, according to clerk Susan Clarke Schaar.
With the retirement of both Senate Democratic Leader Dick Saslaw and Republican Leader Tommy Norment, the upper chamber will have new leadership next year.
The two Democratic senators seen as the leading contenders for their party’s top spot, Scott Surovell and Mamie Locke, both said they thought having committees that reflect the General Assembly would be a laudable goal. But they stopped short of committing to pushing for a change.
Locke said she thought the issue should be discussed in her caucus.
Surovell said there’s been discussion among senior returning members and some who are retiring about finding a way to “build a level of trust” to get back to proportionality.
“I think it’s something to aspire to,” he said. “But for the last four years, my caucus has felt justified because it was what was done to them while they were in the minority.”
Ryan McDougle, one of the two GOP senators seen as the top contenders for the Senate’s Republican leader, said both parties have been “aggressive” on the issue but that the committee assignments during the last four years under Democratic control have been especially “egregious.” He said if Republicans control the Senate next year, the gap in the partisan divide would “not be as great,” but he wasn’t ready to make a definitive commitment to seeking a specific policy change.
Sen. Mark Obenshain, the other likely GOP leader contender, didn’t return phone messages seeking comment.
Bob Holsworth, a veteran political commentator, said the practice has allowed the Senate majority to “exercise unquestioned control” on key committees, adding he could also see it impacting issues like school choice by minimizing the influence of potential crossover votes.
He said the House has sometimes found workarounds to similarly exert majority control, like the use of voice votes in subcommittees to kill legislation. There have also been complaints in past years about House Republicans overusing that chamber’s single stacked panel, the Rules Committee.
“It’s slightly different but, I mean, they find a way,” Holsworth said.
Virginia FREE, which is run by a former Republican legislator and governed by a bipartisan board of well-connected business leaders, believes one party shouldn’t be able to effectively run roughshod over the other, Parisot said in an interview.
The combination of the nation’s sharply divided political climate and the historic turnover expected at the General Assembly next year — partly due to retirements driven by new political maps created in the redistricting process — pushed the group to issue its call now for a new “good governance model,” he said.
There was no internal dissent on the call for a rules change and the proposal has been well received by other community groups, said Parisot, the CEO of a northern Virginia data science and data engineering firm.
“It’s all about the will of the voter,” he said.