Iowa Senate Republicans bury "unfiltered" debate with rule change

As of this week, Iowa state senators are no longer able to give speeches about matters of political or personal importance at a predictable time of day, when the chamber is relatively full.

For many years, members have been allowed to offer “Points of Personal Privilege” shortly after the Senate gavels in at 9:00 a.m.

Republicans ended that tradition on a party-line vote last Thursday. GOP leaders have not explained their reasons for moving the open discussion period to the end of each session day. The rule change is likely designed to reduce the visibility of Democratic remarks highlighting controversial legislation or Branstad administration policies. A former Democratic senator decried the move as “pushing public discourse in the dark.”

Senate Resolution 3, laying out the chamber’s rules for the next two years, came together in a hurry last week. Majority Leader Bill Dix introduced the legislation on January 23 and pushed it through the Rules and Administration Committee on a party-line vote the following day. Democratic Senate staff summarized the proposed changes here. Two involve minor rephrasing, one eliminates the ability to suspend the rules by unanimous consent, and one codifies GOP leaders’ decision to eliminate the Economic Growth Committee over the objections of Democrats. Here’s the big change:

Rule 10 allows points of personal privilege immediately prior to adjournment for the day. Previously, points were allowed when no motion was pending or other business was being considered by the Senate.

You can read the legislative language here, starting on page 7 (“A point of personal privilege shall only be recognized immediately prior to adjournment for the day […]”).

I first heard about the proposal through a Facebook appeal and e-mail former Senator Tom Rielly sent to every current senator and some other active Democrats. Rielly served two terms, opting to retire in 2012 after Iowa’s new map of political boundaries put him in an overwhelmingly Republican district. His January 25 message (emphasis in original):

VERY IMPORTANT,… NOT SURE WHY THIS IS NEEDED, Sorry about length, but VERY, VERY IMPORTANT!!!!.

I urge the Iowa State Senate NOT to adopt rules PUSHING PUBLIC DISCOURSE IN THE DARK.

Please maintain transparency and sunlight in the Iowa Senate. I found out today the Iowa State Senate Rules are being changed.

Senate tradition has allowed Senators “Points of Personal Privilege” It was a time for Senators to make announcements that constituents and School children be recognized that are in the chamber, It allowed them to make announcements of upcoming events, allowed them to announce special events such as birthdays and anniversaries and yes it allowed Senators an opportunity to voice an opinion on current events, and pending legislation.

This always occurred immediately after the Senate gaveled in, the prayer, and pledge of allegiance, usually around 9 to 9:15 am.(IN FACT I FOUND OUT ABOUT THIS UNFORTUNATE RULE CHANGE WATCHING THE SENATE’S PERSONAL POINTS ON LINE THIS MORNING!!!!)A trusted time where you could listen or even view debate occurring on the Senate floor. Sometimes, not much happens, other times, amazingly passionate debates occur. THESE DEBATES GAVE THE AVERAGE CITIZEN A good opportunity to hear both sides of an issue.

This time honored tradition is being moved to adjournment. The problem is, many days, we have no idea when adjournment is. Many days the Senate Stands at ease until the fall of the gavel, but we don’t know when that is, but there is a very good possibility the Senate would gavel in, stand at ease until the fall of the gavel, leaving it open ended, making it much more difficult to see public discourse in the Senate.

Please CONTACT YOUR SENATOR AND URGE THEM, do not change this important Senate tradition!!!!!

Respectfully submitted,
Tom

Rielly linked to a video of Senate proceedings and commented in a second Facebook post,

This is one type of Debate that took place this morning during Points of Personal Privilege that occur a little after 9am as is Senate Tradition….. After tomorrow we will no longer have an idea when debates like this will occur, because of a rule change, pushing these types of give and takes back to an unknown time in the future, making it much difficult for the Average Citizen to [h]ear both sides of an issue. This is not a Democratic or Republican concern, It’s a Transparency issue.

I don’t understand the need for this change. Free and open discourse on issues, open to the public with easy access, should be of utmost importance to our elected officials. […]

In that comment thread, Rielly added,

I don’t understand why they want to move it. Personal Points of Privilege is our political system unfiltered, and this this amazing site t is just that. You can follow legislation, check the financials of the State or simply to stay informed. I went in [as an elected senator] in 2005 and from then up to now It’s always been at the start of the day after the Pledge around 9am.

The Video streaming has only been available the past few years. That’s what’s so disappointing as to why they would want to move the Personal Points of Privilege. It’s an everyday routine for me. At 9 am I log on to www.legis.iowa.gove to see what my Legislators have to say for the day. At time there is not much, but I’ll freely admit, there are times it can get rather heated, and tempers flare, but no matter how intense it can get, great points of views or different points of views are brought up on both sides of the isle.

Some of my best memories and best learning experiences came during the Personal Points between [Stew] Iverson and Mike Gronstal, thundering away at each other, only to [shake] hands after the debate showing no hard feelings.

Or when Sen. Jeff Angelo speaking so eloquently and emotionally about a former colleague that passed

Or when Sen. Wally Horn tried to calm tense nerves after the Jetsetta Gage Tradgedy.

Again, this is our political system unfiltered, and it would be incredibly sad if it were tucked away so no one will have an idea has the when the Personal Points will be.

Rielly didn’t persuade any GOP senators. Dix brought Senate Resolution 3 to the floor on the morning of January 26. Amendments from Minority Leader Rob Hogg to allow personal points earlier in the day and from Senator Rita Hart to bring back the Economic Growth Committee both failed on party-line votes (see the Senate Journal for roll calls). Senators then adopted the new set of rules on a voice vote.

It’s not hard to guess why Republicans decided to bury personal points at the end of the day, when fewer people will be in the chamber. The new GOP majority is poised to enact many policies that will inspire intense opposition. I enclose below two powerful personal points by Senator Mary Jo Wilhelm from the 2013 session, when Democrats were fighting for Medicaid expansion.

Imagine speeches like Wilhelm’s delivered on an almost daily basis, denouncing bills to defund Planned Parenthood, undermine public education, hurt services for vulnerable Iowans, destroy collective bargaining, make it harder for people to vote, and so on. Republicans won’t want Democrats setting the tone for the morning’s debate and possibly setting the agenda for statehouse reporters watching the proceedings. By the late afternoon, journalists will be chasing other stories or may already have filed their dispatches, depending on their deadlines.

Social media will help mitigate the harm done by this rule change. Staff can post newsworthy personal points on the YouTube channel for Senate Democrats, on the official website for the caucus, and on Facebook or Twitter.

I have rarely shared videos of legislative proceedings in the past, but I will do more to spread the word this year, now that Dix and his colleagues have upended Senate tradition to keep such remarks from reaching a wide audience.

Senator Mary Jo Wilhelm, delivering a personal point on March 12, 2013:

Transcript from an Iowa Senate press release:

To Governor Branstad, living without health care is something to ridicule, something to joke about.

What happens when Governor Branstad is asked about helping Iowans too poor to afford health insurance?

He starts talking about health care savings accounts, about increasing co-pays, and about people getting drunk at open bars at weddings.

Governor, if you can’t afford health insurance, making health care more expensive will not help.

The problem is that Iowa’s Governor has no idea what it is like to be unemployed or to work for the minimum wage.

He’s been on the state payroll for almost all of his adult life. His family has never had to live without health insurance. That’s the plain and simple truth.

It’s not the Governor’s fault that he apparently has no idea what it is like to live in poverty. But, it is his fault that he is failing to help Iowans who do.

I wish Governor Branstad would listen to some of the Iowans who have testified about what it is like to live without health insurance.

One retired Iowa teacher came to Room 22 and cried while describing her adult daughter’s life without mental health care.

Governor Branstad doesn’t know these people.

They aren’t foreign business investors.

They aren’t campaign contributors.

They don’t live in fancy houses on the west side of Des Moines.

They are not living the life of Rielly.

But they are still Iowans, and, Governor Branstad, you are just as much their governor as the rich investors and business people you surround yourself with.

Let me tell you the story of one of these people.

This is someone I know very, very well.

As a young woman in her mid-twenties, she was going through a difficult time. She was getting divorced, and she didn’t have much money.

She lived in a small Iowa town. No matter how hard she tried, the only job she could find was a part time job.

She was able to make ends meet, but just barely. After paying for rent, gas, and groceries, there was nothing left.

Governor, like many part time and full time Iowa jobs, her job did not include health insurance.

Now this young woman developed a medical problem.

It was a painful, painful problem. Repeated doctor visits, visits she paid for out of pocket, did not solve the problem. She needed to have an operation.

That operation was going to cost $3,000. That’s a good chunk of money now, and it was a whole lot more back then.

Governor Branstad, this young woman put off having that operation. She lived and worked in the pain for several, difficult months.

Finally, she was able save up enough money to afford the operation and her recovery went well, she got a full time job, she remarried, she had children, and eventually, she was elected to the Iowa Senate.

Yes, Governor Branstad, I was one of those people you feel so free to laugh about. Some poor shlump living without health insurance.

Guess what, Governor, there are tens of thousands of Mary Jo Wilhelms in Iowa right now, living without health insurance. Each with their own story.

Some are in their 20’s, some in their 40’s. Many of them are taking care of children. Most of them are working. Some have several jobs and still can’t afford health insurance.

Governor Branstad, instead of talking about free bars, cash bars, the failure of politicians in Washington DC, let’s talk about Iowans.

Iowans that deserve to have access to affordable health care.

You are the Governor of Iowa. Act like it.

Wilhelm delivering a personal point on April 8, 2013:

Transcript from Iowa Senate press release:

Thank you, Madam President.

Since I talked about when I was an Iowa worker who couldn’t afford health insurance, I’ve heard from many Iowans in the same situation.

People like this woman from southeast Iowa:

“For years I worked as a waitress, and had no insurance.

“A lot of people do not realize that if you don’t have insurance, it probably takes everything you earn just to make ends meet.”

That is the best argument for Medicaid expansion.

Here’s a woman who made it in just one sentence.

“As a small business owner and recently divorced woman, I do not have health insurance as of the first of this year.”

These are the Iowans who need our help.

Working Iowans living without health insurance.

Most other states are expanding Medicaid.

What happened to Iowa?

Well, Governor Branstad has finally released his plan. It is packed with premiums, co-pays and other “gotchas” to deny working people health insurance.

How did we get here? Well, let me tell you.

Last July, the U.S. Supreme Court said states could choose to expand Medicaid or not.

Governor Branstad immediately announced he would come up with a better plan.

A couple of days later, he changed his mind.

On July 15, in a C-SPAN interview, Governor Branstad said he was working instead to elect Mitt Romney so health care reform would be repealed.

Well, we know how that turned out.

What has Governor Branstad done since the election?

He’s encouraged Iowans to walk more and eat more fruits and vegetables.

He’s joked that helping working Iowans get health insurance was like letting people drink at an open bar.

He’s said he wants working people who can’t afford real insurance to pay for some sort of Branstad Insurance-Lite.

Last week, he released a plan that does just that.

Here’s what Governor Branstad didn’t do.

Governor Branstad did not come up with a plan that is better than Medicaid expansion.

The Governor’s plan costs more, covers fewer people, and provides less health care.

That’s why the Branstad plan is no plan at all.

Thank you, Madame President.

  • In The Dark

    Can people see what the Republicans are up to now? Not letting legislators make comments at the beginning of the session when people might have a chance to hear? Getting rid of the Department of Economic growth? Is there something going on here that they don’t want us to know or see? Is economic growth dwindling under Republican control? Why are they trying so hard to hide things? What are they trying to hide from the public?

    I will surely Miss Mary Jo Wilhelm. She was a strong advocate for the people and I’m sorry that she lost her campaign. The negative ads put out against her were lies and very demeaning. That campaign was very nasty. Unfortunately the people fell for it.

    The state is now controlled by people who want to hide what they’re doing. This is not a good sign for the state. It couldn’t be any more obvious.

    • it was disheartening to see

      negative ads “work” against so many of our good state lawmakers. I do not know Mary Jo Wilhelm personally, but I know she is a principled advocate, and I have always heard she was very accessible to constituents.

  • Election consequences

    Today I heard a Republican state senator triumphantly reminding his listeners that his side had won the election and will do what it had promised. But he apparently is not as pleased with the merits of his actual agenda as he is with his election win. Why not brag about the agenda, too? Why the gag order on critics who lost?

    He knows the election was as much a rejection of a particular candidate as it was an endorsement of his agenda, so he needs to keep the agenda in the dark.

    • very true, and also

      note that Republican candidates for the state legislature didn’t campaign on most of the policies they are now planning to ram through.

  • Rodney King Moment

    Remember when the cops had to chase Rodney over hill and dale. It took quite awhile to finally catch him and we all know what happened when they did!
    The repubs have been chasing us libruls for many years over hill and dale. They have now caught us.

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