One of the principal legacies we inherit from the founding fathers is the ideal of the private citizen who represents a specific community. Not all states have preserved this ideal in practice, but we all can be glad, and proud, that Virginians have done so.
It's not easy, mind you. Because each member of the House of Delegates faces re-election every two years, a delegate is much closer and accountable to the people- as voters- than are any other representatives in state government. Further, a house district is smaller than a senate district, and senators face re-election only every four years. Because neither house nor senate districts' boundaries are mainly geographical any longer, many voters are not aware of the district in which they reside. This situation is compounded by the sheer mobility of people in these times, and the situation is forcefully apparent in the delegation from northern Virginia, for instance.
So, getting out and about in the counties is vitally important, not only to know people as people but to learn what interests, issues, concerns, and needs the people wish to carried to Richmond for consideration by the legislature.
What makes this challenging for a citizen-legislator is that a legislator like myself has to work for a living, attend scores of meetings throughout any year, tend to the sheer mechanics of politics, read and respond to hundreds of messages of all types, and pay close attention to the some 4,000 bills that will be considered when the General Assembly reconvenes each January. That my work is as a teacher, requiring similar expenditures of energy for much of the year, adds considerably to the challenge.
A member of the house receives $18,000 per year, an amount that hasn't changed for 20 years. A stipend of $15,000 is assigned for office operations. Each member receives one legislative aide- a rigorous and full-time job that pays less than a starting teacher earns in either Powhatan or Chesterfield schools.
To ensure that the model of the citizen-legislator survives, the assembly meets for only 60 days in years ending in even numbers and for 46 days in years ending in odd numbers. This fact explains why- as last year- session can be extended.
These stringent requirements preserve the legislature as a collegium of citizens doing the people's business. When we remember that "gridlock" through the separation of powers was purposely instituted into the U.S. and Virginia constitutions to ensure that no branch of government could assume an improper degree of power over the law, the explanation of the giveand take, the inter-party battles and the inter-branch disagreements comes into clarity.
Of course, much of the statewide press prefers to focus on the politics the legislative and executive branches of government. But as a teacher of history and government, I am constantly reminded that the gridlock, of which the press complains, is precisely the process and the outcome of any session that the founding fathers envisioned and established. Gridlock means that representative government is working as it ought to work.