Legislation sniping.

I read on Del. Kris Amundson’s blog about legislation she’s carrying to keep sexual predators from being teachers. Looking at the bill on Richmond Sunlight I saw something odd — another bill nearly identical to Del. Amundson’s, but filed by Del. Jeff Frederick. Only Amundson’s bill was filed on January 9, and by the time Frederick’s bill was filed, Amundson’s bill had been in committee for nearly a week. So he had to know about the existing bill.

This rang a bell, so I checked and, lo and behold, Frederick did this before, only more boldly. During last year’s session, Amundson prefiled HB1971 on January 5. Four days later, Frederick filed the exact same bill. To the word. So what happened? Del. Amundson’s bill was killed, rolled into Frederick’s (which wasn’t much work, what with being identical), and Frederick’s bill ended up passing and becoming law. I asked Del. Amundson about this bill, and she explained to me that she’d worked on the bill the prior summer on behalf of a constituent — the idea was original.

So now I’m working on a little code for Richmond Sunlight to identify duplicate bills. (Unfortunately, it’s incredibly slow, so until I figure out how to optimize this code, I can’t make it available on the site.) But I ran a query for other duplicate bills and, wow, there are some humdingers. Often they’re a case of a totally obvious bill (i.e., abuser fees) that lots of legislators want to take credit for, come reelection. Since the Department of Legislative Services writes the bills, two legislators who describe identical concepts are going to get the exact same text. But in other cases, the ideas strike me as original, and the filing dates seem to show a pretty clear instance of legislation sniping.

Another one that came up with this duplicate bill code: Del. Shannon Valentine’s HB1731 and Del. Ben Cline’s HB2693, which are identical, to the word. Del. Valentine prefiled her bill on December 22. Del. Cline filed his on January 10. Valentine’s bill had been assigned to subcommittee by the time Cline got around to introducing his xerox of it.

Perhaps I’m just revealing my ignorance of the legislative process. Maybe there’s a totally reasonable explanation for this sort of thing. But from where I’m sitting, this just looks a little lame.

15 thoughts on “Legislation sniping.”

  1. * House Bill Count: 1,849
    * Senate Bill Count: 928

    please let everyone when you find out why the dups…

  2. Well, even if there is a totally reasonable explanation, if you, being uber-informed compared to the average voter, don’t get it, then perhaps there’s something wrong with the system.

  3. I don’t know what happened in the situation you described, but I think there’s a pretty logical explanation for identical bills. First, you have to remember that most legislators do not draft their own legislation. That task is handled by the Division of Legislative Services.

    Typically, a legislator who comes up with an idea will contact the DLS, which will assign a staff attorney with expertise in the subject area. Put yourself in the position of the staff attorney. Legislator A calls and describes what he’d like to accomplish. You do the research, write up the bill and send the legislator a draft. Later, Legislator B calls and describes a very similar idea. There’s no need to do more research and start from scratch, so you simply send legislator B the same identical draft.

    It is not surprising that there are a number of bills that are identical — word for word.

    How two legislators come up the same idea is another question.

  4. David is correct. Shannon and I attended the same Nurses’ Association meeting last year where the idea for the bill was discussed. Both of us put in similar drafting requests, and the same attorney was assigned to put the concept into bill form. Shannon simply introduced her bill sooner.

  5. If you believe Cline–who introduced his bill nearly 3 weeks later– after Valentine’s bill had been printed, circulated and assigned to committee, then you’ll believe in the Easter Bunny.

    Watch his nose grow each time he tells that tale!!!!

  6. Shannon learned a lot from last year and was surprised at what happened w/ her bill. Shannon works very hard. I have no idea if Cline does.

  7. I don’t know Del Cline or Del Valentine well enough to comment so energetically on their qualities as delegates. But I do want to make one observation about the logistics of the event in question that rubs me the wrong way:

    If a single attorney received two identical drafting requests from two different legislators, even if he received the second request a week later while he was in the middle of writing the bill in response to the first request, he would still presumably be able to deliver identical copies of the proposed legislation to both lawmakers in the same window of time. If he had already written one bill matching the specifications required by the second lawmaker, turn around time for the second copy would be much faster than the first–basically the only thing he has to change is the patron name.

    So it begs the question why about 20 days elapsed between the submission of Valentine’s bill and Cline’s. Del. Cline asserts that the only difference is that Shannon pre-filed while he opted to sit on his bill for the better part of a month, denying other legislators an opportunity to have more time to read it over. The other plausible scenario is that Del. Cline submitted his request substantially later than Del. Valentine–perhaps after Valentine had already prefiled.

  8. One of the issues here that no one is talking about is the sheer number of bills being dropped and how slow LIS is to post them even after they have survived drafting.

    Maybe the GA should seek to use the first days of the Assembly consolidating these xerox bills and reduce the number of bills filed from 3000 to 1500. Take out the commendation resolutions and you have even fewer bills to wade through.

  9. Thanks for this excellent catch, Waldo, and for your work on Richmond Sunlight generally.

    And thanks to the commenters, including Ben Cline. Ball’s in your court, Del. Cline: why did you wait until after Valentine’s bill had appeared to file your own? Or, more to the point, why’d you file your own rather than supporting hers?

  10. Good question. The drafting and introduction of legislation should be a deliberative process and not a race between members. I am always happy to work with Shannon on common areas of interest. As Reagan once said, it’s amazing how much one can accomplish when no one cares who gets the credit.

  11. Del. Cline, I appreciate your willingness to engage in some give-and-take in what is surely a more hostile audience than you would prefer. Very few legislators choose to subject themselves to such things. That said, I have to ask: If Nell’s question is a good one, why not answer it?

  12. Sorry, I’ll try again:

    Q: Why did you wait until after Valentine’s bill had appeared to file your own?

    A: I wasn’t waiting for her – I always introduce my bills within a few days of the filing deadline at the start of each session (confirmable on the House website for any disbelievers).

    I wait until the last minute because I am working (or was taking law finals) in December and don’t start finalizing my legislative package until the holidays. I squeeze every minute out of those two weeks between Christmas and the start of session (and I applaud Shannon for being ready earlier).

    Q2: Or, more to the point, why’d you file your own rather than supporting hers?

    A: Shannon and I work together on lots of issues, but this one was important to my district. Central Virginia Training Center is a state facility for the mentally disabled in Amherst County that is facing a significant shortage of nurses. This bill would have allowed retired state nurses to return to the workforce without losing their benefits. So while I also supported Shannon’s bill, I introduced the bill to help my district.

  13. Del. Cline, I share Waldo’s sentiments regarding your willingness to answer questions regarding this directly, especially since so many of us really do not have much insight into the actual legislative process nitty-gritty.

    That said, forgive me for being obtuse but I’m not sure that your answer above to Q2 actually clarifies things. OK, so the bill was “important to [your] district”. Thus, Del. Valentine’s bill was “important to [your] district”. Honestly, the only reason I can see for you to introduce a copy of a bill that was already in subcommittee is for you to take credit for it later.

    If her bill was the same as the one you later introduced, how does hers not help your district, but yours does (if that was your prime concern)? And if it’s just a matter of her having the time to file before you because of other priorities on your part (which I fully understand), then she should just get credit for the bill even moreso because of her commitment to the process and the “legislator” part of the citizen legislator.

    Early bird gets the worm, and all that.

  14. I’d humbly suggest that Del. Cline is scooching around the issue.

    My bet on what drives the real answers to Q2: 2009.

    Del. Cline didn’t going to combine his bill with Del. Valentine’s (and then support it) because that might give Del. Valentine a win. Del. Valentine will have a challenger in 2009, and it will be a targeted race if that challenger is halfway decent. Leaving the inimitable Del. Valentine alone was among the key strategic failures of the House Republican Caucus in 2007: they spent the 2007 session going out of their way to make her life difficult, and then didn’t follow up it up with a challenger. Sadly, I don’t think they’ll make that mistake again in 2009.

    So: crass politics beats good policy and rational legislative process, in this and many other instances.

    The House GOP has shown its colors this session – from the opening bell they’ve governed the House with little regard for open government or good policy, cynically trusting that the voters won’t notice and the politics will work out. (For examples, see: EVERY SINGLE open government rule and bill, committee rules, subcommittee membership, and not least, the latest kerfuffle re: Del. Ebbin’s bill).

    I think their heavy-handedness, combined with the incredible skill of terrific legislators like Del. Valentine (just for example) will make 2009 a great year for Democratic House candidates. But either way, I’m positive a full an honest answer from Del. Cline on this questions would include 2009.

Comments are closed.