State Politics Education Series: What is the General Assembly and why should you care?

Millennials crushed it in the last election. This is fantastic news for our generation because our unexpected, large turnout proved our power, spotlighted our issues, and broke the “apathetic young people” stereotype. However, if our generation is to remain politically relevant, we would do well to recognize a crucial reality-- participating in elections only the first step on the road to progress. It's the actions we take between elections that truly matter, and that means we must sustain a real presence in state government.

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This mission goes beyond the “it’s your civic duty” cliche we political nerds espouse on social media. Our interests our reflected by our institutions only when we hold our leaders accountable. This is especially true for millennials since the average age of our state representatives is 52 and older, and the economic turmoil 18-30 year old Virginians find themselves in today wasn't experienced by previous generations (see our economic challenges of being millennial blog).

There is one glaring issue with this call to action though. On the surface, the policy-making process appears complicated, and most of us don't know where to begin. 

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Fortunately, Virginia’s state government is more reactive to the actions of everyday people than most of us realize-- it’s why public interest groups like Virginia21 exist. So now that the Virginia General Assembly session is here, Virginia21 is channeling our inner Schoolhouse Rock and releasing a series of educational blogs designed to help readers understand the state political process through the eyes of an advocate. This series is intended to be short, practical, and insightful enough to empower readers with the knowledge to make a difference.

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The first topic featured in this educational series:

THE VIRGINIA GENERAL ASSEMBLY

What is it, why it matters, and who can make the difference.

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What Is It?

The Virginia General Assembly has been described as “the oldest continuing lawmaking body in the New World” because it was originally created in pre-revolution Jamestown as a colonial lawmaking entity. Today, it serves the same purpose, but the laws enacted affect the entire commonwealth of Virginia, and lawmakers are elected by residents of various districts. It's like Congress, but only for Virginia.

Since the General Assembly is Virginia’s congress, it is also made up of two chambers-- the House of Delegates (like the U.S. House of Representatives), and the Senate (...like the U.S. Senate). Members of both houses introduce, review, debate, and vote on laws through a similar process as that of the federal Congress. For a refresher course on that, check out the classic Schoolhouse Rock video.

 
 

The starkest difference between Virginia’s General Assembly and the United States Congress is that the Generally Assembly session only lasts 45 days in odd years and 60 days in even years. Virginia's legislature has a shorter session because its members are part time. The reason for the weird schedule relates to the biennial budget, but I promised brevity so that's not worth explaining further right now. Click here if you absolutely must know.  

Why It Matters.

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THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY WILL LITERALLY DECIDE POLICY THAT MAKES A HUGE DIFFERENCE IN YOUR LIFE! The amount of money colleges receive from the state, i.e. college affordability, will be decided during this General Assembly session. Whether or not to expand medicaid is another burning question to be debated by legislators this winter. Student loan protections, students' right to privacy, campus sexual assault, open and affordable textbooks-- all on the ever growing list on the typical agenda of the General Assembly session.

 

The three groups who make the difference.

1.The Governor (Duh.) and the Legislators (Duh-er.)

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This group is pretty obvious. Laws are are made by well… lawmakers. The Governor releases a policy agenda every year and his staff works with legislators in various ways to pass as much of it as possible. General Assembly members also have their individual agendas that are influenced by their personal and professional backgrounds, the needs of their constituents, and the political party they represent.

2. Lobbyists.

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Lobbyists get a really bad rap because of controversial news stories and dark portrayals on TV shows. However, in Virginia they can play a crucial role in educating the General Assembly members. Thousands of bills are introduced every session, and no human being is capable of absorbing that amount of information on their own- especially within a 45-60 day time limit. Lobbyists can represent a variety of public or private interests and ensure that relevant issues don't fly outside the radar of our representatives. For example, Virginia21 employs some of our staff as lobbyists to bring attention to the concerns of millennials and convince legislators to support policy that benefits our generation and to reject policies that are harmful to young Virginians.

3. YOU!

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This goes back to my original point of “normal” people being involved. In order to govern appropriately, the General Assembly members must understand exactly how their actions translate into tangible impact on the lives of citizens. Regardless of party affiliation, our elected officials do care about your well being and will often listen when you ask to be heard. You don’t have to be a political insider or an expert on a particular issue to request a meeting or to email or call your representative.

Voting is important, but it's only the first step on the path to change. Virginia21's accomplishments are not the result of our staff alone. They were made possible by a group of concerned young people willing to share their story when important decisions were being made. You don't have to be a political nerd to make a difference. Your voice matters as long as you don't underestimate its power. 


About the Author

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Tim Cywinski is the Director of Engagement for Virginia21. He previously worked as an organizer and Project Manager for the National Education Association's "Degrees not Debt" campaign in Arizona and has held numerous political operative positions in national, state, and local campaigns. Tim earned a bachelor’s in Political Science from Roanoke College, and he now resides in Richmond, VA. In his free time, Tim enjoys rock climbing, writing, and forcing friends to attend his karaoke "concerts".