The masculine pronouns were swapped out for feminine ones. The House Commerce and Labor Committee was renamed the House Labor and Commerce Committee, a sign of Virginia Democrats’ desire to elevate workers in a place where business interests usually hold sway.
The new Democratic majority in the House of Delegates embedded several symbolic flourishes in the rules package it passed Thursday on a 55-45, party-line vote. But leaders deferred action on the tricker issue of what to do about guns in the state Capitol, passing it off to a Democratic-controlled committee to decide at a later date.
The move left a significant public safety question unanswered as law enforcement and elected officials brace for a month that some fear could spin out of control.
Pro-gun activists are preparing come to Richmond in droves on Jan. 20 to protest new gun-control laws Democrats want to pass, and the event appears to have drawn the attention of militia groups that may be more interested in making a show of force.
Instead of passing a rule banning guns in their chamber and under areas under their control, House Democrats deferred the matter to the House Rules Committee, led by newly elected Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax. The forthcoming gun policy may or may not include a “blanket prohibition” on guns, the rules resolution said, and the committee could amend it from time to time depending on what threats arise.
“I think we want to make sure we have a policy that’s flexible enough to react to whatever the reality is out there,” said Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax.
It wasn’t clear when the rules committee would meet to flesh out the policy. Because the policy is only being considered by the House, not the Senate, it was also unclear which areas of the Capitol and the adjacent Pocahontas Building would be affected.
“There’s a larger discussion going on as well with the Senate,” Simon said. “There are larger discussions going on with the governor’s office as well about security all around the building and all around the square.”
House Republicans, getting their first taste of life in the minority after decades in power, sharply questioned the move to enable a small subset of lawmakers to make institutional decisions affecting the entire body. Democrats also empowered the rules committee to craft a new anti-harassment policy covering “race, sex, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age” or disability.
“I just think that is not the way that this body should govern and it’s not a good start to this session if we are going to immediately take two very important issues and relegate any discussion about that policy to a committee,” said House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah.
Speaking on the House floor, Gilbert said the body should not “unduly disarm” people wanting to visit the Capitol or leave them exposed to “the whims of criminal activity.”
Asked by reporters about the prospect of unrest at the upcoming gun rally, Gilbert said he expects the vast majority of attendees will be law-abiding gun owners.
“But a gathering like that certainly may attract bad actors from both sides of the political spectrum. We certainly are cognizant of that,” Gilbert said.
The rules resolution preserved the practice of proportional committee representation, giving Republicans seats on committees equivalent to the number of House seats they hold overall. In keeping with past practice under Republican leadership, the Rules Committee was the sole exception. The new committee will have 13 Democrats and five Republicans.
Following the election of Filler-Corn as the body’s first female speaker, Democrats tweaked the House rules to call the speaker “She” and reference “her office,” not his.
A few other House committees got new names under Democratic rule. The former Science and Technology Committee will now be called the Communications, Technology and Innovation Committee. The former Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee has been shortened to the Public Safety Committee.
Republicans raised several objections to the rules, including the plan for a new gun policy. Democrats overruled their proposed amendments in a series of 55-45 votes.