Senate Republicans throw transparency out the window

Iowa Senate Republicans have abandoned longstanding rules that ensured subcommittee meetings would be open to the public and announced at least 24 hours in advance, and that committee chairs would allow votes on all germane amendments to bills.

Senate committees had operated under those rules since the 2005 legislative session, when each party had 25 senators. The rules remained standard practice throughout ten years when Democrats controlled the upper chamber and the first two years of a Republican majority following the 2016 elections.

Organizational meetings of standing legislative committees rarely make news, but fights about the rules erupted in several committees on January 15. The chamber’s Rule 39 (full text enclosed below) has long governed how committees operate. For fourteen years, committee chairs routinely adopted three amendments, which stated:

  • “The time and place of a subcommittee meeting shall be posted at least twenty-four hours in advance of the subcommittee meeting. The chair may waive the twenty-four-hour posting requirement before or after the committee meeting.” (The option to waive the notice requirement was used sparingly, typically only when lawmakers were up against a “funnel” deadline for considering non-appropriations bills.)
  • “All subcommittee meetings shall be open to the public.”
  • “All germane amendments offered in committee shall be eligible for a vote.”
  • Democrats on the Senate Human Resources Committee offered those three amendments, but Republicans rejected them all on party-line votes. According to Democratic State Senator Herman Quirmbach, GOP Senator Mark Costello asserted that his colleagues wanted all committees to operate under the same rules. That doesn’t explain why they couldn’t all adopt the three standard amendments. In any event, the Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees adopted rules allowing for public subcommittee meetings. So not all of the chamber’s committee rules will be uniform.

    Several Republicans, including Judiciary chair Brad Zaun, promised on January 15 to continue to provide 24-hour notice of subcommittees. However, GOP leaders may avoid doing so when considering their most controversial or impactful proposals.

    Democratic Senator Claire Celsi noted on Facebook that changing 24-hour notice to “one legislative day” means “a Republican Committee Chair can assign a bill to a subcommittee at 11:45 p.m. and can set the time for the meeting for 8:00 the next morning.” During the past two years, hundreds of citizens showed up at the statehouse for subcommittee meetings on high-profile bills to defund Planned Parenthood, eliminate most public employee collective bargaining rights, or ban so-called “sanctuary cities.” That will become almost impossible under the new Senate committee rules.

    Quirmbach commented via e-mail on January 16 that when he first joined the Senate in 2003, “public subcommittee meetings were generally not held at all. A subcommittee ‘meeting’ often consisted of the chair of the subcommittee walking to the members’ desks and just asking for their signatures. No public input.” He shared some of what he told colleagues during yesterday’s Human Resources and Commerce committee meetings:

    “Yes, it’s more work to have public subcommittee meetings. Listening to people takes effort, but isn’t that what the voters hired us to do?”

    “When we instituted these rules in 2005, the Senate was tied. We had co-everythings from co-presidents to co-subcommittee chairs. It was a good experience. We had to learn to work together because everything had to be bipartisan. Sen. Shull and I were co-chairs of Local Government, and we were completely in agreement that we needed to be more open to the public. Most other committees adopted open subcommittee and notice rules that year, too.”

    “A subcommittee is the only time ordinary citizens have a chance to speak on a bill. We don’t take public comment in front of the full committee.”

    “Subcommittee meetings have often identified unintended consequences, omissions, and other mistakes. They have also provided a low-key environment where new ideas can lead to good compromises. Why stop doing that?”

    In a January 15 news release, Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen condemned the actions of Human Resources Committee Republicans, saying

    “For years, many Iowans wondered if legislative Republicans had stopped listening to their concerns.

    “The action today by Senate Republicans demonstrates that they don’t want to listen to Iowans anymore. […]

    “These changes are a shameful, deliberate attempt by Senate Republicans to cut more back-room deals and to keep taxpayers in the dark about what they are doing.”

    Expect more fireworks today as additional Senate standing committees hold their organizational meetings.

    P.S.–Quirmbach confirmed that Human Resources chair Mariannette Miller-Meeks refused to “yield” to a question from a Democrat (he thought it was Senator Joe Bolkcom) during yesterday’s meeting. “Never seen that happen before.” Later the same day, Commerce Committee chair Jake Chapman refused to yield to Quirmbach’s question about the rules. “He just said he was opposed and refused to explain why.”

    Declining to interact with colleagues from the other party is another unwelcome departure from standard Iowa legislative practices. Here’s hoping Miller-Meeks and Chapman aren’t setting a trend for the 2019 session.

    UPDATE: The Des Moines Register’s Barbara Rodriguez quoted Senate Education Committee Chair Amy Sinclair as saying, “We can’t tie the hands of doing the business of the people.” She asserted, “The reality of it is it does interfere with business, having that time clock in there.”

    What a farce. I challenge any Republican lawmaker to cite any bill they were unable to advance in 2017 or 2018 because of Iowa Senate rules on subcommittee meetings.

    According to Senate Democratic staff, the following committees adopted Rule 39 on January 15 or 16 without the three amendments cited above:

    Agriculture (Republicans defeated amendment to require open subcommittee meetings)
    Education (Republicans defeated all three amendments Democrats offered)
    Government Oversight
    Human Resources (Republicans defeated all three amendments Democrats offered)
    Judiciary (Republicans defeated amendments on open subcommittee meetings and 24-hour notice)
    Local Government (Republicans defeated four Democratic amendments: the three mentioned above and silencing cell phones)
    Natural Resources and Environment
    Transportation (only an amendment on silencing cell phones was adopted)

    Some committees adopted rules including at least some transparency measures:

    Ways and Means (unanimously adopted rules in effect last year)
    Labor and Business Relations (unanimously adopted rules in effect last year, but chair Jason Schultz made clear he will do a “blanket waiver” of the 24-hour notice requirement)
    Commerce (Republicans agreed to require that subcommittee meetings be open to the public but defeated an amendment on 24-hour notice)

    The Senate’s Appropriations and Ethics committees have not yet met, and the Veterans Affairs committee deferred action on rules until its second meeting.

    Bleeding Heartland published all Senate committee chairs and members here.

    Appendix: Full text of Iowa Senate Rule 39, adopted without amendments at several Iowa Senate committee organizational meetings on January 15:

    Rule 39
    Rules for Standing Committees
    The following rules shall govern all standing committees of the senate. Any committee may adopt additional rules which are consistent with these rules:
    1. A majority of the members shall constitute a quorum.
    2. The chair of a committee shall refer each bill and resolution to a subcommittee within seven days after the bill or resolution has been referred to the committee. The chair may appoint subcommittees for study of bills and resolutions without calling a meeting of the committee, but the subcommittee must be announced at the next meeting of the committee. No bill or resolution shall be reported out of a committee until the next meeting after the subcommittee is announced, except that the chair of the appropriations committee may make the announcement of the assignment to a subcommittee by placing a notice in the journal. Any bill so assigned by the appropriations committee chair shall be eligible for consideration by the committee upon report of the subcommittee but not sooner than three legislative days following the publication of the announcement in the journal.
    When a bill or resolution has been assigned to a subcommittee, the chair shall report to the senate the bill or resolution number and the names of the subcommittee members and such reports shall be reported in the journal. Subcommittee assignments shall be reported to the journal daily. Reports filed before 3:00 p.m. shall be printed in the journal for that day; reports filed after 3:00 p.m. shall be printed in the journal for the subsequent day.
    Where standing subcommittees of any committee have been named, the names of the members and the title of the subcommittee shall be published once and thereafter publication of assignments may be made by indicating the title of the subcommittee.
    3. No bill or resolution shall be considered by a committee until it has been referred to a subcommittee and the subcommittee has made its report unless otherwise ordered by a majority of the members.
    4. The rules adopted by a committee, including subsections 2, 3, 9, 10, 11, and 12 of this rule, may be suspended by a
    n affirmative vote of a majority of the members of the committee.
    5. The affirmative vote of a majority of the members of a committee is needed to sponsor a committee bill or resolution or to report a bill or resolution out for passage.
    6. The vote on all bills and resolutions shall be by roll call unless a short-form vote is unanimously agreed to by the committee. A record shall be kept by the secretary.
    7. No committee, except a conference committee, is authorized to meet when the senate is in session.
    8. A subcommittee shall not report a bill to the committee unless the bill has been typed into proper form by the legislative services agency.
    9. A bill or resolution shall not be voted upon the same day a public hearing called under subsection 10 is held on that bill or resolution.
    10. Public hearings may be called at the discretion of the chair. The chair shall call a public hearing upon the written request of one-half the membership of the committee. The chair shall set the time and place of the public hearing.
    11. A subcommittee chair must notify the committee chair not later than one legislative day prior to bringing the bill or resolution before the committee. The committee cannot vote on a bill or resolution for at least one full day following the receipt of the subcommittee report by the chairperson.
    12. A motion proposing action on a bill or resolution that has been defeated by a committee shall not be voted upon again at the same meeting of the committee.
    13. Committee meetings shall be open.

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