Partisan frustration

Published 9:59 am Saturday, February 6, 2010

Bill Barlow, back at work in the House of Delegates after a bruising re-election battle last fall, dabbles at a mid-morning “lunch” of scrambled eggs and toast while entertaining constituents and lamenting the partisanship that grips Richmond these days.

The Smithfield lawyer and 10-term lawmaker is a Democrat in a Republican-controlled chamber. The fate of legislation is more likely to be determined by the party of the delegate who introduced it than the merit of the idea.

Frustration is evident in his voice as Barlow, up since 5 a.m. and several meetings already behind him on this young day, rattles off a number of bills he introduced that will never see the light of the House floor.

“If people back home understood …,” he says before educating the visiting constituents about the power of subcommittees, where good legislation can die in an empty meeting room at 7 a.m. with no one watching.

At least a bill in Virginia’s General Assembly gets a recorded subcommittee vote; in my native Mississippi, legislative committee chairmen can — and often do — wield what’s called the “pocket veto,” which prevents a bill from even being debated by a committee or subcommittee.

Still, Barlow’s point is well-taken.

His common-sense bill to make failure to wear a seat belt a primary offense rather than a secondary offense was killed by a subcommittee’s Republican majority. Identical legislation introduced by a Senate Republican passed the Senate with ease.

Isle of Wight County officials, concerned about the upcoming closure of International Paper Co.’s Franklin mill and the impact of the resulting lost tax revenue on property owners’ tax burden, asked Barlow to sponsor legislation allowing the county to levy a tax on cigarettes. Illogically, cities, towns and a couple of Northern Virginia counties can tax cigarettes, while most counties cannot.

Barlow introduced one bill to let all counties levy cigarette taxes and a second bill giving only Isle of Wight County permission. Both died in subcommittee.

Hold on to your wallets, Isle of Wight homeowners.

For years, Barlow has tried to minimize the politics in legislative and congressional redistricting by giving the once-a-decade task to an independent commission. Each year, the legislation dies quietly. The result is increasingly gerrymandered districts designed to guarantee the re-election of an incumbent or to stack the deck for one party or one race.

It’s the reason that Republicans never bother to put up a serious candidate for the congressional district on the Peninsula and that Democrats concede the congressional district south of the James. It’s the reason increasing numbers of General Assembly incumbents run unopposed for re-election.

The founding fathers believed that a certain degree of partisanship and gridlock were healthy — and wisely put in place constitutional checks and balances to prevent ideologues from running roughshod over dissenters.

Partisanship run amok can be equally detrimental, however.

Richmond and Washington would function more effectively if lawmakers were more concerned about the merits and demerits of legislation than about who gets the credit or the blame.