Iowa Senate leader stripped two Republicans of committee chairmanships

In an unusual move between the first and second years of a legislative assembly, Iowa Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix took committee chairmanships away from two members of his caucus this week. Senator Jake Chapman is the new leader of the Commerce Committee, replacing Bill Anderson. Senator Craig Johnson, who was just elected for the first time last November, now chairs the Transportation, Infrastructure, and Capitals Appropriations Subcommittee, replacing Rick Bertrand.

Dix handed the more significant demotion to Bertrand, who no longer serves on any appropriations subcommittee. Anderson’s remaining committee assignments still include a spot on one appropriations subcommittee as well as a position on the powerful Ways and Means panel.

Senate Republicans didn’t publicize the changes, which took effect on May 24, on their website or social media feeds. The snubs to Bertrand and Anderson attracted little notice amid the transfer of power from Governor Terry Branstad to Kim Reynolds. Senate GOP communications staff, Johnson, Bertrand, and Anderson did not respond to my requests for comment. When I reached Chapman by phone on May 24, he confirmed his new committee chairmanship but declined to speculate about the reasons, saying, “I don’t make those decisions.”

My first thought was that Dix punished Bertrand for throwing a bit of a tantrum (starting at the 6:12:20 mark of this video) during the final debate on Senate File 471, the bill banning almost all abortions after 20 weeks. But when senators first considered the same bill in March, Chapman had tried to suspend the rules to force a floor vote on “personhood” language. Johnson was among sixteen Republicans to support that breach of Senate protocol. Anyway, my initial hunch wouldn’t explain what Dix did to Anderson, who has never called out his GOP colleagues during a Senate floor speech, to my knowledge.

My best guess is that Bertrand and Anderson paid a price for missing too many votes this year. Follow me after the jump for details.

Senate Journals cover every roll call vote on the floor and note which senators attended committee meetings.

A review of this year’s journals showed that Bertrand was absent on more of the legislature’s 72 working days than any of his colleagues.

Bertrand missed Senate floor votes on January 26, March 9, March 13, March 16, March 23, March 27, March 30, April 3, April 6, April 12, April 13, and April 21. No other senator was gone for nearly as many days.

Bertrand also missed:

• Natural Resources and Environment Committee meetings on January 19, January 24, January 31, February 9, March 9, March 29, and April 3;

• Transportation Committee meetings on January 25, February 8, February 13, and March 30;

• Commerce Committee meetings on January 31, February 1, February 9, February 13, February 28, and March 2;

• Veterans Affairs Committee meetings on January 11, January 26, February 27, March 22, and March 28;

• Appropriations Committee meetings on January 24, February 27, April 12 and April 13;

• Bertrand did not attend the January 24 or January 25 meetings of the Transportation, Infrastructure, and Capitals Appropriations Subcommittee, despite being that committee’s leader.

In most cases, Bertrand’s committee absences were noted as “excused” in the Senate Journal, which typically means he informed the chair ahead of time that he would miss the meeting. A handful of absences were not marked as excused, which may indicate the chair didn’t get a heads up from Bertrand: Transportation on February 13, Commerce on February 1, February 13, and March 2.

Anderson didn’t have nearly as many absences as Bertrand, but he missed floor votes on March 9, March 23, and March 30.

He also failed to attend Natural Resources and Environment Committee meetings on January 19, February 9, March 9, and March 29; a Transportation Committee meeting on February 6; State Government and Transportation committee meetings on March 30; and a Ways and Means Committee meeting on March 16. All but the last were marked as “excused” absences.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that both Bertrand and Anderson are up for re-election in 2018. Anderson is unlikely to face a strong challenge in Senate district 3, which contains more than twice as many registered Republicans as Democrats.

Bertrand has previously said it is “unlikely” he will seek a third term in the state Senate, and his attendance record this year suggests he doesn’t enjoy legislative work. Nevertheless, I expect Bertrand to run for re-election. Assuming he does, Sioux City-based Senate district 7 will be a top target for Democrats, who have a voter registration advantage and a potentially strong challenger in State Representative Chris Hall.

SECOND UPDATE: A reader reminded me that when the Senate debated the workers’ compensation bill, Anderson voted for an amendment offered by fellow Republican Senator Mike Breitbach, which was not sanctioned by leadership. (Details are in the last section of this post.) Neither Anderson nor Breitbach ever responded to my inquiry about why most of the GOP caucus didn’t support that amendment. The episode could explain why Dix was angry with Anderson.

On the other hand, the Senate majority leader didn’t punish Breitbach; he still chairs the Government Oversight Committee and is vice chair of the Commerce Committee. Maybe Breitbach remains in Dix’s good graces because he never once convened a Government Oversight meeting during the 2017 legislative session, despite requests from ranking Democrat Matt McCoy.

Republican Party of Iowa State Central Committee member John Thompson tried to put a good spin on the situation, commenting on Facebook,

It’s no punishment. It’s just the result of having citizen legislators who need time to manage affairs outside of Des Moines.

Rick Bertrand is overseeing a multi-million dollar property development this year in Sioux City and Bill Anderson has young kids.

Lots of Iowa lawmakers have served while raising young kids or running a business. If Bertrand and Anderson feel they can’t juggle those responsibilities during the four months of the year the legislature is in session, they should step down.

Removing a committee chair is without question a demotion. For some reason, Dix wasn’t satisfied with how Bertrand and Anderson handled their legislative work this year. Maybe there is some other backstory I’m missing, as when Iowa House leaders took the Education Committee away from Greg Forristall after the 2012 session.

  • Absences

    I see that in both cases, these legislators missed an especially high number of Natural Resources and Environment Committee meetings. Very interesting.

  • Helpful

    Hall would give Bertrand a good run anyway, but what a nice gift this is to Chris, who can now point out the reduced impact for Siouxland that Bertrand can have due to being demoted by his own party. I really hope Hall runs.

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