Guest Blog: Attending Desk Meetings at the General Assembly
Wednesday, February 18th, 2015
The following is a guest blog post by a VPLC intern:
The Virginia legislative process is meant to be transparent. In reaching the goal of transparency during the General Assembly, all meetings listed on the docket are open to the public. So, any member of the public may attend a floor hearing or debate, go to a committee meeting, or even a subcommittee meeting. Theoretically, one can attend a floor desk meeting. A desk meeting is a meeting called by a committee head or member to take place on the House floor during recess or upon adjournment of the daily session. Because these meetings happen at the legislators’ desks, they are not recorded or conducted in any way that a member of the public could witness without also being on the floor, by the desk, during the meeting. But that is the tricky part: members of the public are not typically allowed on the floor during any session, and would not likely know to ask admission onto the floor to attend these meetings. So, I tried it.
I started by watching a House floor session from the gallery. I was kindly admitted, reminded about the rules of decorum, and seated front and center. All proceedings of the House floor session are recorded, amplified and televised onto big screens for viewing ease in the gallery, various rooms in the capital, and for online streaming. House desk meetings are not recorded, amplified, or televised for anyone’s ease – rarely does anyone know what is said in these meetings. As the floor session ended, a desk meeting was announced immediately following the House’s adjournment. So, I immediately walked downstairs to the House floor entrance. I was greeted by a drove of Delegates walking in the opposite direction, followed by a page asking if I needed help. “I would like to attend the desk meeting the House just announced, please. Members of the public can do that right?” “I’m not sure about that, let me find someone who can help you.” A very nice gentleman then told me that “it was highly unusual, but yes, the public may go out onto the floor for desk meetings. Is there even a meeting happening? I don’t see anything.” He then proceeded to go about his business.
I stood at the House door trying to figure out where to go. There were groups of Delegates standing around talking, so it was difficult to discern whose desk was the meeting place. When I found it, and walked to the delegate’s desk, the group just stared at me like I was crazy. Clearly, attending desk meetings is highly unusual. I did not stay long – just long enough to test the transparency theory as applied to desk meetings. Bottom line: members of the public need only ask permission to attend a desk meeting on the House floor, but they need to know what they are doing in order to actually find the meeting once they are on the floor. Then they need to figure out how to observe these meetings without stopping them due to their public presence. Without some guidance or forewarning, I believe it would be very difficult for an average member of the public to navigate attending a desk meeting. Is this really the type of transparency we are looking for?
The views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Virginia Poverty Law Center.