The Virginia General Assembly
You can access a brief history of the Virginia General Assembly by visiting the Virginia General Assembly’s webpage on “Citizen Involvement.”
Did you know that:
Our Assembly dates back to 1619? For more information on the history of our Capitol, click here.
The Virginia General Assembly is billed as the “oldest continuous law-making body in the New World?”
Virginia has a bicameral legislature that consists of 140 members, 100 delegates and 40 senators?
The primary responsibilities of the General Assembly are to formulate public policy, enact laws, approve the budget, levy taxes, elect judges, and confirm the Governor’s appointments?
By tradition, the General Assembly always meets in the winter. Ours is a citizen legislature, meaning that every member either has a day job or is retired. And when our legislature began meeting in 1619, the vast majority of the members were landed gentry. Their farms lay fallow in the winter; hence, they could devote time to law-making. The General Assembly meets on three different types of sessions.
Regular sessions. The General Assembly meets annually beginning the second Wednesday in January. In the odd years, the Session is scheduled to meet for 30 days, which can be extended 30 days beyond. The usual practice is for the Assembly to meet for 46 days. In the even years, the Assembly meets for 60 days. The differences in length of the Sessions is due to the budget cycle. The biennial budget is passed in the even years; hence, the Sessions are longer.
Special sessions. The Governor may call a special session when it is deemed necessary. Two-thirds of the General Assembly may also request a Special Session.
Reconvened sessions. A reconvened session is held on the sixth Wednesday after adjournment of each regular or special session. In these sessions, the Assembly deals with any recommendations or gubernatorial vetoes.
The work of the General Assembly is accomplished primarily through committees, and with a bicameral legislature, all bills, regardless of House of origin, must be heard and passed in both houses in order to become law. A complete list of committees can be found on the House and Senate websites. One cannot access any written documentation about the types of bills heard in the committees. The reason for this is primarily political. In the House, the Speaker assigns bills to committees, and in the Senate, the Clerk assigns bills. Sometimes political considerations trump functional considerations, and one can find a bill heard in a committee that appears only remotely related to the title of the committee.
The law-making process
Any constituent or special interest group can seek to have the Code of Virginia amended by law. The process is described superbly on the General Assembly website. Note the following:
Because of the Sessions’ fast pace, bills move very quickly through the process of committee assignments, hearings before sub-committees and committees, and if bills pass from committees, to the Houses. That means that we must act quickly when asked to contact our legislators about a specific bill.
All action must be taken on bills in their Houses of origin by a certain date known as “cross-over.” In the short sessions (odd-numbered years), that date is usually around the Tuesday closest to February 8th. In the long sessions (even-numbered years), the date is approximately one week later.
The most important legislators are those who act on bills in committees; that is, the committee members themselves. If a bill passes from a committee with a solid favorable vote, the bill is likely to be passed from the body to the other House.
Bills that pass both Houses must be identical in order to send to the Governor. If they are different, the differences must be ironed out in conference committees.
The Governor may amend or veto any bill. The Houses may override the vetoes or deny the Governor’s amendments. This is the work of the reconvened session.
The General Assembly’s Legislative Information System (LIS) is a very user-friendly website to which one can access all bills before the General Assembly since 1995. LIS also provides a free service titled, Lobbyist in a Box, in which one can track on a daily basis during the Session up to five bills.