The 2024 regular session of the West Virginia Legislature is underway, and let me confess now that I am a fan. You may think that is a peculiar view, especially since we tend to have such low regard for politicians and the political process.
And, in fairness, there is a lot to dislike about politics, especially in today’s environment when the discourse has become so toxic. And no political body, including the West Virginia Legislature, is above pettiness, bombastic speeches, and healthy doses of self interest.
But along with that you will also find the West Virginia Legislature is made up largely of—wait for it—real people. And by “real” I mean men and women who have a sincere interest in the state and want to contribute to making it better.
Now, there are wide disagreements over the merits of those contributions but, collectively, they tend to represent the varied interests of the individuals, businesses and organizations in West Virginia. They are us, or at least most of us.
This is, after all, a citizen legislature and very few of the lawmakers are what you would call professional politicians; they are amateurs. They don’t have consultants or opinion polls to tell them what to say or do, but that brings me to the next point.
I have found that most legislators listen to their constituents. Countless times during floor sessions, committee meetings and casual conversations, lawmakers will reference emails, texts and phone calls they have received from the folks back home. That’s encouraging because it means the people’s voices can be heard.
Of course there are special interests and lobbyists who gather daily and wait anxiously to get into the offices of key lawmakers, but they get to have a voice, too. It is not possible for citizen legislators to be well-informed on all issues, so the lobbyists and the representatives of various agencies and associations provide valuable information.
And, yes, there are back room deals, but moving a bill through the legislature remains largely a public process. It has to get through at least one, and sometimes two or three committees in both the House and Senate and then pass three readings on the floor of each chamber.
A lot can, and often does, happen during that process. It is actually very hard to pass a bill and get it signed into law, and it should be. The rigorous procedure necessary to get an introduced bill into law serves as its own system of checks and balances. Also, an important part of the process which is not talked about as much are the efforts to stop a bill from passing.
Additionally, almost every day there are myriad displays by state groups and organizations in the great marble hallway between the House and Senate chambers. In the middle is the upper rotunda. All are welcome there as the politicians, lobbyists, reporters, interested citizens and the curious mingle. I cannot imagine there is any place else like it in the state.
It should also be noted that during debates, lawmakers—with rare exception—behave respectfully toward their colleagues while the House Speaker and the Senate President rigorously follow proper parliamentary procedures. Yes, government can work.
The politics of it all are important because it is the process by which power is exercised and decisions are made. You may hate politics and believe that the West Virginia Legislature is a convenient butt of jokes, but what happens for the next two months will determine how our state government operates.