Effective Lawmaking in Virginia: Past, Present and Future

Craig Volden, David Toscano, Bill Howell


Hear Dean Solomon's conversation with Toscano and Howell > 


Two of the most influential figures in Virginia's recent political memory visited Garret Hall Monday to reflect on the challenges and opportunities facing the state’s legislature.

This week’s Batten Hour panel featured Bill Howell, former Speaker of the House of Delegates, and David Toscano, former House Minority Leader, in a discussion about how the legislature is addressing past, present and future policy challenges. Their discussion was moderated by Craig Volden, professor of public policy and politics at Batten and the co-director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking.

In a candid and insightful conversation, both retired delegates shed light on how lawmakers, especially those in leadership positions, think and what can be done to promote effective lawmaking in Virginia. 

“Pizza is important in legislatures,” Toscano told the crowd of students, many eating pizza that the school provides during the mid-day Batten Hour events. “Eating pizza was a way people got to know each other and break down some of the partisanship.” Bridging the divide between Democrats and Republicans is crucial for any legislature to function, and both agreed that the gap has only grown wider in recent decades. 

Howell, who was a member of the General Assembly from 1988 and its speaker from 2003 to 2018, spoke to growing political dysfunction and polarization. “We used to talk about the Virginia Way and say, ‘We’re not like those people up in Washington. We get stuff done, and we work together.’ I’m not so sure I can say that anymore.”

Toscano, a Charlottesville Democrat who served as minority leader of the Virginia House of Delegates from 2011 to 2018, reflected on how an evolving news and social media landscape has contributed to political polarization. 

“The media participation down in Richmond and at [state] houses all over the country has declined so dramatically,” Tascano emphasized. “When I first came in, there would be 10 or 12 reporters on the back row every single day, from Virginia Beach, from Charlottesville, from Richmond, Northern Virginia and Washington. It’s not like that anymore. Traditional media has fallen away. People look for their news by going to national outlets. What that’s doing is nationalizing the politics within these state houses, and it's happening all over the country.”

Craig Volden, David Toscano, Bill Howell
Batten's Craig Volden (left) interviews David Toscano and Bill Howell.

Howell added how this has changed the way people communicate with lawmakers. As a freshman in the assembly, his office would get maybe 8 to 10 letters a week from constituents. By the time he left office five years ago, that number had surged to 80 emails a day, not only from Virginians in his district but from individuals across the nation.

Building on Howell's observations, Toscano underscored another factor contributing to the rise in polarization: demographic shifts within the state legislature. “It’s difficult to try to figure out what the culture is now in the Virginia General Assembly, because there's so much turnover. I think 50% of all of the members now have less than four years experience.”

Both commented on one of the most distinctive aspects of Virginia's government – its term structure for governors. Unlike in many other states, Virginia bars its governors from serving consecutive terms, a tradition dating back to the state's second constitution, ratified in 1830.

“You learn in third grade civics there are three co-equal branches of government: legislative, executive and judicial. It's not true,” Toscano quipped. “The legislature is the preeminent.” In his view, proposed legislative reform creating a two-year, two-term governorships would enhance accountability, especially since legislation can take so long to get passed. 

Howell disagreed. “The governor of Virginia has a lot of power. He can make line-item vetoes, he can put bills in any time he wants to. Plus, he's got the bully pulpit.” In his view, lawmakers remain too hesitant to change the tradition. “If the governor had additional time he could do a lot of damage. I don't know if that's fair or not, but it's my opinion. I'm sticking with it.”

Professor Volden ended the panel by asking for any words of advice for Batten’s students—budding leaders, policy scholars and advocates. 

The former Speaker of the House encouraged them to recall the famous admonition of Benjamin Franklin, who, upon leaving the Constitutional Convention, reportedly shared a memorable exchange with an elderly woman. When she inquired about the form of government they had created, Franklin replied, “We have a republic, madam, if you can keep it.”

“That's your challenge as the next generation, ‘if you can keep it,’ Howell said. “So, get in the game.”

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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