Virginia House will legislate the special session remotely after contentious rule changes

By: - August 19, 2020 12:01 am

House Sgt. at Arms Jay Pearson, walking, right, carries the Mace into the Siegel Center as the Virginia House of Delegates begins their special session in Richmond, VA Tuesday, August 18, 2020. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch/Pool)

The House of Delegates will be meeting remotely as it decides the future of legislation on state spending, pandemic protections and criminal justice reforms amid nationwide calls for racial equity and police accountability.

The historic decision followed a lengthy debate between House Democrats and Republicans as they considered how to proceed with a special session that began Tuesday amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The argument was largely divided on partisan lines, with Democratic leadership arguing for a remote session and Republicans claiming it would hinder transparency and disproportionately burden rural legislators.

The question of a virtual special session first emerged in late April when legislators gathered in Richmond for the General Assembly’s reconvened session, during which both chambers vote on gubernatorial vetoes and amendments to newly passed legislation. At the start of the day, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, unsuccessfully proposed a rule change that would allow House lawmakers to leave Richmond and continue the reconvened session remotely. But both chambers passed a budget amendment clarifying that public bodies could meet electronically during the COVID-19 pandemic.

House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, gavels the session to a close as the Virginia House of Delegates met for their special session inside the Siegel Center in Richmond, VA Tuesday, August 18, 2020.

On Tuesday, meeting at spaced-out desks in VCU’s Siegel Center, Democratic House leadership proposed two procedural changes to the chamber’s normal rules allowing them to take advantage of the clarifying amendment. One would allow the speaker to call electronic meetings of the full body. Another key adjustment would waive a House rule requiring committee members to meet in-person for the purpose of voting on proposed legislation. But for the measures to go into effect immediately, legislators needed a total of 66 votes — two-thirds of the chamber’s 100 members.

That would have required collaboration from Republicans, who currently hold 45 seats. But Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said that most members didn’t want to continue the session remotely, arguing that it would make votes less transparent and cut into debate on bills.

“How do any of our constituents know that we are actually the person sitting there at the computer?” he said. “And how do we know that we can make a point of order — like the many we’ve tried to make today — how do we know we can make a point of order at the appropriate time?”

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, reacts to a procedural resolution on conducting the session passed by the Democratic majority as the Virginia House of Delegates conducts their special session inside the Siegel Center in Richmond, VA Tuesday, August 18, 2020. (Pool photo by Bob Brown/ Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Gilbert’s communications director, Garren Shipley, also argued a remote session would unfairly impact rural legislators and constituents without high-speed broadband. But Democratic leadership said it was in the best interest of legislators on both sides of the aisle, who carried a greater risk of contracting or transmitting the virus the longer they stayed together in Richmond.

“These are unprecedented times,” Filler-Corn said. “Uncharted territory. We’re talking about a pandemic, and we want to preserve everyone’s health and safety. And not just members —  their families, their staff. There’s a lot of people involved here.”

House members voted 55-43 to waive the rule requiring committees to vote in person (the vote was split along party lines with one member — Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach — absent from the session). But without a two-thirds consensus, the rule must be read for five days before it can pass by simple majority.

House Democrats, though, quickly passed another resolution that Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, described as a clarification of the speaker’s ability to call electronic meetings of the full chamber under language passed in the April budget amendment. The result allows the House to meet remotely as a full body. But lawmakers still have to re-read the proposed rule change allowing remote committee meetings for five days before it can pass with a simple majority on Sunday — delaying discussion of House bills until next week.

In a later statement, former House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, called the changes “an unprecedented and unjustified power grab unlike anything I have seen during my 31-years as a delegate.” There was also bipartisan frustration from Senate legislators — who did not discuss the possibility of continuing the session remotely— that the House did not plan to begin immediately working on legislation. 

Virginia State Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, left, talks with Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City County, during the Virginia Senate Special Session in the temporary Senate chambers at the Science Museum of Virginia Tuesday Aug. 18, 2020, in Richmond, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber/Pool)

“The actions of this Senate are in the interest of efficiency, ” said Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria. Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, was more pointed, worrying that if the House and Senate weren’t meeting at the same time as they do during a typical session, the legislative process could drag on for weeks.

“This is just a miserable way to do business,” he said.

House Majority Leader Charniele Herring said leadership had briefed both Democratic and Republican legislators on their plans for a remote session before the chamber convened on Tuesday. “There were no surprises today,” she added.

Gilbert later called the statement “an outright falsehood.”

From left, Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford and House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, confer as the Virginia House of Delegates met for their special session inside the Siegel Center in Richmond, VA Tuesday, August 18, 2020. (Pool photo by Bob Brown/ Richmond Times-Dispatch)

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Kate Masters
Kate Masters

Kate grew up in Northern Virginia before moving to the Midwest, earning her degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. She spent a year covering gun violence and public health for The Trace in Boston before joining The Frederick News-Post in Frederick County, Md. Before joining the Mercury in 2020, she covered state and county politics for the Bethesda Beat in Montgomery County, Md. She was named Virginia's outstanding young journalist for 2021 by the Virginia Press Association.