While serving as vice president of the United States from 1797 to 1801, Thomas Jefferson wrote down rules of parliamentary procedure as remembered from his days studying parliamentary rules while a student at William and Mary and from his experiences as serving as president of the United States Senate. Over the years “Jefferson’s Manual” became the standard by which legislative bodies, including the United States House of Representatives and the Virginia General Assembly, turned to for guidance on parliamentary procedure. Even today Jefferson’s Manual is considered along with Roberts Rules of Order in resolving parliamentary issues in the Virginia and many other legislatures.
Even with Jefferson’s wisdom and his knowledge of legislative practices throughout history there can be no expectation that he could have anticipated the challenges of making laws and passing budgets amidst the double whammy of a pandemic and an economic depression. The 2020 session of the General Assembly ended in early March just as the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic was being realized. The reconvened session for the House of Delegates was held in a tent on Capitol hill with plenty of space for distancing and a breeze that took care of air circulation. The Senate met in the spacious lobby of the Science Museum of Virginia that had adequate space for distancing.
A Special Session of the General Assembly was called by the Governor and met on Tuesday of this week. It was deemed essential to make significant adjustments to the budget for the next two years based on declining revenues and the urgency of revising criminal justice practices that are racist. The Senate is back at the Science Museum, and the House recognizing that a tent would not be practical in hot weather met instead on the basketball court of Virginia Commonwealth University.
The first order of business of the Assembly was to pass rules beyond those embodied in Jefferson’s Manual to accommodate legislating with the limitations of the pandemic. Although the legislature in the past had allowed limited attendance of official government meeting by telephone, a quorum was required to be physically present. The Senate rules allowed limited voting by proxy, but that applied only to committees that were actually meeting. New rules will allow committees to meet virtually and to take votes of members visibly present on the virtual system employed. Legislation introduced in the special session, and there will be many bills related to police and criminal justice reform, will be heard in virtual meetings of committees over the next several weeks and reported to full houses of the legislature for consideration early in September.
The process will allow the business of government to go forward even if Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol cannot accommodate distancing required during a pandemic. It will modernize the rules of Jefferson’s Manual to recognize that technology enables the legislative process to go forward with all citizens being able to view the deliberations even if legislators are not at the same place. The bills that are being considered will also move Virginia beyond inequities of the past.