Power Grab by VA General Assembly GOP Apparently Led to Resignation of...

Power Grab by VA General Assembly GOP Apparently Led to Resignation of Head of Division of Legislative Services Robert Tavenner


by Lowell

I was alerted recently to an, uh, “interesting” move by Republican House and Senate leadership aimed at enhancing their powers even further. Note the bolding in the paragraph below for what this bill by Virginia House Majority Leader Del. Kirk Cox (R) changes from existing practice in the Virginia General Assembly:

All requests for the drafting of bills or resolutions by the Division shall be submitted in person, in writing, or by voice transmission. Each request shall contain a general statement respecting the policies and purposes that the requester desires incorporated in and accomplished by the bill. All written requests shall be signed by the person submitting them. Neither the Director nor any employee of the Division shall reveal to any person outside of the Division, except to the Division of Legislative Automated Systems in fulfilling its duties as provided in § 30-34.14 or designated staff of the Clerks of the Senate and the House of Delegates in fulfilling duties pursuant to their respective Rules…

Now, at first glance this might seem minor, but it actually could be important, at least in theory. For starters, what this move would do is to further centralize power in the hands of House Speaker Bill Howell, Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, and their leadership teams, giving them the ability to see/review any and all legislation being filed, presumably so they can head off bills they don’t like even before they’re filed. Previously, the rule was that no employee of the Division of Legislative Services could be “reveal[e]d to any person outside of the Division.” If this bill becomes law, those bills and resolutions would no longer be confidential.

Meanwhile, as multiple legislative sources told me, the head of the  Division of Legislative Services, Robert L. Tavenner, resigned recently over this specific issue. Here’s the first paragraph of the House GOP’s January 25 statement.

The Joint House and Senate Committee on Rules appointed Senior Attorney Mark J. Vucci as the Acting Director of the Division of Legislative Services on Monday, Virginia House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell and Senate Committee on Rules Chairman Ryan T. McDougle announced after accepting the resignation of Robert L. Tavenner as Director. The director of the division serves at the pleasure of the General Assembly’s Committee on Joint Rules pursuant to § 30-28.12 of the Code of Virginia. Speaker Howell (R-Stafford) and Senator McDougle (R-Hanover), as Chair and Vice Chair respectively of the Joint Rules Committee, released the following joint statement…

Why would Tavenner resign over this issue? As one Democratic legislator put it to me, “as an attorney if my boss tells me to break attorney-client privilege, I think I’m obliged to resign.” Another way to put it, as a Dem source told me, is that legislators are clients – the Speaker’s attorneys are also the House’s legislators’ attorneys. Also, as a Democratic legislator told me, this really “speaks to the polticization of the Clerk’s office.” Or, as another source told me, “I’ve heard they want to make our nonpartisan staff partisan.” 

What about Republican rank-and-file members? You’d think that they wouldn’t like this concentration of power in the Speaker’s hands either, right? What I’ve been told is that “many don’t,” and that some have even “approached Democratic members through staff to see if we would stop it.” Now, you might assume that this bill, even if it passes the House, won’t pass the Senate, but what I’m told is that it’s possible Howell, Cox et al think this has a chance of “flying under the radar,” and also that many members might be reluctant to offend/anger the Clerks of the Senate and the House of Delegates.

One last point on this story relates to the Virginia media. I see that a few members of the Virginia media, such as the Augusta Free Press, picked up the House GOP press release on Tavenner’s replacement by Vucci. What I have not seen is any follow-up, such as what I’ve written above. I’d guess there’s a lot more to this story, and would think a lot of people might be interested in hearing it (hint hint). :)