Among the publicity and partisanship of the presidential elections, it is easy to let the lower part of the ballot go undiscussed. There are two questions on Virginia’s ballot in this election proposing to amend our Constitution. While the question regarding property rights — thanks to the diligent efforts of Del. Rob Bell and Sen. Mark Obenshain — has been well-publicized, Question 2, which proposes to allow the legislature the authority to delay the beginning of their veto session by a week, has largely gone unnoticed.
The text of Question 2 reads,
“Shall Section 6 of Article IV (Legislature) of the Constitution of Virginia concerning legislative sessions be amended to allow the General Assembly to delay by no more than one week the fixed starting date for the reconvened or “veto” session when the General Assembly meets after a session to consider the bills returned to it by the Governor with vetoes or amendments?”
This means that the legislature may, by joint resolution, not begin their veto session of assembly — in which they may consider only bills vetoed by the governor — on the “sixth Wednesday after adjournment” of their regular sessions.
Surely, this seems like a small matter, and its intended purpose is honorable and taken without issue. As Sen. Obenshain explained so clearly, due to lengthened legislative session, there is now a perpetual possibility of this veto session convening during Passover, and continuing through other sacred holidays. No representative should be forced to disfranchise himself and his constituents due to the sacred observance of his religion and following the dictates of his conscience.
But what is missing from the language explicitly is any mention of holidays. Instead, the language is broad and unconditional, granting to the legislature one more method of leverage against a coequal branch of government.
In today’s environment of instant media coverage and electronic correspondence, legislators are often very aware before the passage of a bill whether or not the executive will approve or disallow the legislation. If they presume the governor will veto the bill, they may recalculate their convene date — by a simple majority joint resolution — to better accommodate their agenda.
Consider simply: The senate and house pass by 60% majorities a law requiring all school districts to provide all grades K-6 with tablet computers in the classroom. The executive, for fiscal reasons and fearing the influence of special interest, vetoes this bill and returns it to the legislature. The legislature, knowing that convening on the sixth Wednesday would not interfere with religious holidays, decides to convene their veto session on the seventh Wednesday because (a) it allows them more time to make their case to constituents, and (b) there is in Richmond on the sixth Saturday the largest convention of elementary and middle school teachers the commonwealth has ever seen — and it is sponsored by both Apple and Samsung.
The legislature may at this point exercise options to override the veto, or worse, to coerce the signature of the executive. They may use this hypothetical convention as a platform to convince thousands of teachers to call dissenting legislators; or they may threaten to get the sponsorships of the convention cancelled if the governor does not approve of the legislation, and go into the veto session blaming the governor for forsaking tax revenues.
In the grand governance of things, this question is indeed a small matter, and the desire to amend the constitution to accommodate religious observances is indeed the right thing to do. It is very easy to see questions like this and think, “what’s the harm in that?” But the willingness to let continually the small things pass without careful consideration of their unintended consequences has proven to erode those systems we have put in place for the preservation of our liberties.
The motive for Question 2 may be pure, but the language may be distorted by parties with special or impure interests.
As it stands, the language of the Constitution would be amended thus (language added to Article IV, section 6):
“The General Assembly may provide, by a joint resolution approved during a regular or special session by the vote of the majority of the members elected to each house, that it shall reconvene on a date after the sixth Wednesday after adjournment of the regular or special session but no later than the seventh Wednesday after adjournment.”
We at Bearing Drift would be more comfortable with the question if the Constitution were amended to read (amended text in bold),
“The General Assembly shall reconvene on the sixth Wednesday after adjournment of each regular or special session, or no later than the seventh Wednesday after adjournment if the session beginning on the sixth Wednesday after adjournment interferes with a recognized religious or state holiday, for the purpose of considering bills which may have been returned by the Governor with recommendations for their amendment and bills and items of appropriation bills which may have been returned by the Governor with his objections.”
While the amendment on the ballot may be “a simple fix” to scheduling problems, we all know that simple fixes — if done haphazardly — have a way of becoming larger problems than they originally were, and we should not take so lightly the amending of our Constitution without a thorough review of what might become.