david kerr H&S

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Are legislative committees, often considered the backbone of our American legislative system, the place where “good ideas go to die?”

Some would readily say “Yes.” Others would respond, just as quickly, that without committees in our nation’s many legislative bodies — from the Congress to the state legislatures — the system couldn’t function.

It’s where most legislative work gets done; but to opponents and advocates alike, the committee process can be maddening.

Just ask the advocates of the Equal Rights Amendment in Virginia. Rightfully, they think it was the committee system, and in particular the House Committee on Privileges and Elections, that cost them their amendment during this year’s session of the General Assembly.

The ERA made it out of the Senate, was referred to the House, sent to a committee, as is the practice, where, as many predicted, it died.

The chairman of the Committee is an ardent opponent of this legislation, and he has a lot of sway over this committee. The sad thing was that it was almost guaranteed to pass had it made it to the floor of the full House. That’s the less-than-democratic nature of the committee system.

Why have a committee system in the first place? The answer comes down to workload and vetting.

There are hundreds of bills introduced in the General Assembly every year. Someone has to sort them out and someone has to vet them.

Committees discuss the bills, rewrite them, have hearings on them and debate them. So, inevitably, only a handful of the many bills that come their way can get past this hurdle. However, as with the ERA, it’s a system that can be abused. A small group of legislators, not necessarily representative of the House as a whole, can bottle up legislation that would otherwise pass.

Ok, now for a little history lesson about a time when the U.S. Congress’ vaunted committee system had to give in. It’s about how the Civil Rights Act finally got to the floor of the House. It’s one of my favorite stories.

Back in 1964, “Judge” Howard Smith, D-Alexandria, who represented our region, was chairman of the House Rules Committee. He was also an ardent segregationist. Since every bill requires a “rule” to govern debate, he used his committee as a means to keep the Civil Rights Bill, which had been approved by the Judiciary Committee, from reaching the floor.

He had used this mechanism before on several occasions. But in 1964, the world was changing, and a group of Democrats and Republicans, day-by-day, kept adding their names to what’s called a “discharge petition.” This was a mechanism, that with 218 signatures, would force Congressman Smith to send the bill to the floor.

Even supporters of the Civil Rights Act were worried about challenging the old chairman’s authority. But the number of names on the petition kept growing and before it reached the magic number of 218 signers, Chairman Smith gave in.

Committee chairmen still exercise awesome power in Washington, but times have changed. Congressmen aren’t quite afraid of them as they used to be. Tools like the discharge petition have been used many times since, and now both parties have term limits for their committee chairman.

However, Richmond hasn’t caught up when it comes to reining in the abuse of power in their respective committees.

Another good example of a committee thwarting the will of the chamber was the bill to create a redistricting commission to draw lines for legislative and congressional seats.

Committees are important. Every legislature relies on them, and they do a lot of the heavy lifting of legislating.

However, as we saw in Richmond and it happens elsewhere too, the Committee process can give disproportionate power to a few, and it can be abused — often at the expense of the democratic process.

So, yes, that is where, until the Committee system gets fixed, good ideas sometimes go to die. 

David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford County School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU and can be reached at StaffordNews@insidenova.com.


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