Lester Feder is one of the new regular contributors to the Democracy for Virginia blog. You can read about Lester and our other new contributors here.
How can we influence legislation in Virginia? In order to lobby effectively, you first need to know how the process works and what opportunities you have to influence it. First I'll outline the process, and then describe the ways we can help move it in our direction.
For simplicity’s sake, I’ll track a bill originating in the House of Delegates on its way to becoming law:
Step I: Filing and Introduction
Before the beginning of the legislative session, delegates can file as many pieces of legislation as they desire. This means they present them to the House clerk, who assigns them bill numbers. (The infamous domestic partnership ban, for example, is known as House Bill 751, or, more commonly, by the abbreviated HB 751.) After the session begins, each member can file up to five additional proposals.
Filing a bill, however, does not mean it automatically enters the legislative process. In order for the House to act on a bill, a member of that body—known in Virginia as a patron (which is equivalent to a sponsor in the US Congress)—has to introduce it.
Step II: Subcommittee and Committee
After a bill is introduced, the House Speaker assigns it to a committee where it will be given its initial hearing. Usually it is pretty obvious what will go to what committee: bills concerning transportation go to the Transportation Committee, bills concerning child support goes to the Health, Welfare, and Institutions committee, bills concerning guns go to Militia and Public Safety, etc.
The committee chairman usually assigns the bill to a subcommittee, which is made up of a portion of the committee membership, who review the bill and makes a recommendation to the full committee on what action to take on it. In subcommittee they have the option to amend it, and then they vote on whether the full committee should report it, which means the bill would advance to the next step in the process and be presented to the full House for passage; to table it, which means it does not advance, but does not totally die, either; or to pass it by indefinitely (PBI), which means it would be killed without ever coming up for a vote. (SUBCOMMITTEE VOTES ARE NOT RECORDED)
The committee takes up the bill as amended by the subcommittee along with its recommendation. Before taking final action, the full committee has the option to amend the bill once again. They vote on whether to report, table, or PBI the measure. (They are not obligated to follow the subcommittee’s recommendation.
If they vote to table of PBI a bill, it does not advance. If, however, they vote to report it …
Step III: The House Floor
… the measure comes before the full House. Here delegates have yet another opportunity to amend a bill. In order to advance to a final vote, a bill must first must be engrossed, which means the body agrees to take final action on it. If the House votes to engross a bill, it then comes to a final vote. If it does not get a majority, the bill fails. If the House adopts it, however…
Step IV: Crossover
… half-way through the session, on a day known as Crossover, the bill is sent across the hall to the Senate along with all the other legislation passed by the House. (At the same time, of course, the Senate is sending over all the bills it has passed to the house.) Here the process more or less repeats: the Senate Majority Leader sends it to a committee, which votes to amend it, advance it, or kill it.
If it is reported to the full Senate, the body then amends, passes, or kills it. If it passes but has been amended since it left the House, it returns to the House’s approval. If it is unamended, then the bill has made it to final passage.
DETOUR: Conference Committee
The outline I just presented assumes that the House Bill has no companion legislation in the Senate; that is to say, there is no equivalent bill that working its way through the Senate simultaneously on a parallel track. If a House Bill has a Senate equivalent, the bill goes to a conference committee, appointed by the House and Senate Leadership, who get reconcile the two versions and sends it back to the chambers for final passage.
Step V: The Governor
After a bill has been passed by both chambers of the General Assembly, it goes to the governor. Like in the federal system, Virginia’s chief executive can sign the bill and make it law, or he can veto it. The governor does have an option that the US president doesn’t , however—he can also amend legislation.
Step VI: The Return to the General Assembly
If the governor amends legislation, it returns to the General Assembly which can either accepts or rejects the governor’s changes.
If the governor vetoes legislation AND THE BILL PASSED BY MORE THAN A TWO-THIRDS MARGIN IN EACH CHAMBER, then the bill returns to the General Assembly which has the opportunity to override his veto.
And that is how a bill becomes a law in the Old Dominion.
How You Can Track the Process and When You Can Influence It
The General Assembly’s website, http://legis.state.va.us, allows you to easily find out where a bill is in this process. Go to the home page, and enter the bill number in the box on the upper right hand side of the page (without a space—e.g. HB751, SB1324). If you don’t know the bill number, you can click on the link to do a full text search, and you can find the bill using keywords the legislation contains.
There are more ways for us to influence this process than simply lobbying members to vote up or down on legislation. Much of the key work goes on at the level of committees and subcommittees. Take the ban on Gay Straight Alliances. For many members of the House, it was politically difficult to vote against this measure, but they didn’t like it either. In subcommittee, they amended it to water it down, and recommended that, rather than vote to report it, the full committee re-refer the bill to another committee, Courts of Justice. Though this was a punt, it initially seemed that Education had effectively killed the bill with this maneuver. The Courts chairman placed it at the end of an already exceedingly long docket, and it was hoped that he planned to let it die by not taking action on it. Rather than letting it die, however, it was taken up but it was amended to water it down further. By the time they reported it to the House floor, it was so meaningless that even supporters of Gay Straight Alliances felt they could vote for it. (It was ultimately killed in the Senate largely for the reason that it did nothing.)
If we know what happens minute-to-minute in the assembly, we have the power to influence these procedural measures in such a way that makes them more favorable to our desired outcome. For example, the Senate Majority Leader gave the ban on Gay adoption ban a surprise boost towards passage by electing to refer it to the Senate Social Services Committee instead of the Health and Education Committee which was likely to be much more hostile to it. Effective lobbying of key members of the Social Services Committee who might have felt they had to support it on an up or down vote resulted in the bill being sent to the Senate Courts of Justice committee which was likely to kill it.
Effective legislative advocacy means not just lobbying our legislators to vote certain ways, but also lobbying key members on key procedural decissions. It also means turning out large numbers of folks to committee meetings (most of which are only announced the morning of the day they meet) to show support or opposition to a bill. (In committee meetings, members of the audience are almost always offered the opportunity to speak to a bill, and even mere physical presence can make a huge impact.)
As we decide what kind of advocacy work we want to do, keep in mind this process and the multiple opportunities we have to influence it. How can we best organize to track sessions and be prepared to respond?