Center for Effective Lawmaking

CEL Event: Effective Lawmaking in Virginia

Former Virginia House Minority Leader David Toscano and former Speaker Bill Howell (from left to right). (Photo by Ryan Strand, Batten School).

CEL Event: Effective Lawmaking in Virginia

On Monday, February 5, 2024, the Center for Effective Lawmaking (CEL), within the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, held a presentation titled   “Effective Lawmaking in Virginia: Past, Present, and Future” as part of the school’s Batten Hour series. The panel discussion featured Bill Howell, former Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, and David Toscano, former Virginia House Minority Leader, who talked about how the legislature was addressing statewide challenges and what can be done to promote effective lawmaking in Virginia. The event was moderated by Craig Volden, professor of public policy and politics at Batten and CEL co-director.

Howell and Toscano covered a wide variety of topics surrounding their experiences in the Virginia General Assembly. The conversation began with the two reminiscing on their beginnings in the House. Both agreed that, despite the steep learning curve that comes with being a freshman delegate, conversation and relationship-building was the secret sauce for legislative effectiveness. Pizza – Toscano mused – made the long committee days bearable. They both lauded their parties’ respective mentorship programs for new members and emphasized that listening and learning as a new state representative would go much further than attempting to make significant change rapidly: reputation-building had to come first. 

Both acknowledged the concerning decline of local media participation in politics. When he began his career in the General Assembly in 2006, Toscano was accustomed to a dozen local reporters sitting in the back of every session. Today, however, most people receive their local news from national outlets, causing an infiltration of national partisanship into local affairs. With dozens of disgruntled emails daily instead of a couple of letters a week, legislators now view bills differently. More broadly, the advent of social media has shifted how legislators communicate with and represent their constituents, and such communication is paramount in a time of significant information overload among the electorate.

Nationalization of media has eroded “the Virginia Way,” as Howell put it. While Washington has, especially recently, been “all politics,” Toscano argued that Virginia used to be, and hopefully will continue to be, a place where people get things done. Both commented on the 2013 transportation bill as a massive legislative success and an example of what Virginia politics is all about: faced with a sure lack of votes, Howell’s caucus made concessions to Toscano’s Democrats and pioneered an innovative funding system to champion a bipartisan bill. While not providing what everyone wanted, they obtained what they needed. Toscano stressed that legislating isn’t an individual endeavor; collaboration is critical in addressing big issues. 

Despite the negativity surrounding polarization, both noted causes for optimism. The electorate has grown substantially more diverse, and the part-time style of House duties creates a space full of experts who can consult one another on various specialized topics. While Senate-House feuds may be rampant and the relationship between the “proposing” governor and “disposing” legislature may cause tensions, both agreed that serving in the House of Delegates was a truly enriching experience that they would recommend to any politically inclined individual.

After the event, the panelists spoke with students to elaborate on their views and to offer career advice. They were also guests on the latest episode of “Grounds to Listen,” the Batten School’s podcast hosted by Dean Ian Solomon, that features insightful conversations with leaders about the art of leadership in an increasingly diverse and divided world. Listen to the episode here.

CEL co-director Craig Volden, former Virginia House Minority Leader David Toscano, former House Speaker Bill Howell, Batten School Dean Ian Solomon (from left to right).

The CEL is incredibly thankful to Howell and Toscano for their time and insightful comments, and to all those who made this event possible.

To view the full discussion, see the video below:

CEL Fall Intern Wyatt Dayhoff contributed to this post.

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