Ashley Hinson dodged Iowa House debates on high-profile bills

State Representative Ashley Hinson didn’t miss a roll call vote as the Iowa House wrapped up its work in June, legislative records show. But the two-term Republican mostly stayed out of the House chamber while colleagues debated controversial bills.

The tactic allowed Hinson, who is also the GOP challenger in Iowa’s first Congressional district, to avoid public questioning about policies she supported. Notably, she was absent during most of the House deliberations on imposing a 24-hour waiting period for abortions, establishing a barrier to voting by mail, and giving businesses near-total immunity from lawsuits related to COVID-19.

Neither Hinson nor her Congressional campaign responded to Bleeding Heartland’s repeated inquiries about those absences.

“IS THE LADY IN THE CHAMBER? I DON’T SEE HER IN THE CHAMBER”

Iowa legislators often ask colleagues to yield to questions during floor debate. The practice is one of the few levers of power available to the minority party. Sometimes representatives or senators are trying to clarify their understanding of the bill or amendment being considered. They may use the dialogue to highlight flaws in proposed legislation or expose likely consequences of passing it.

An exchange on the House or Senate floor can create a public record of legislative intent, in case a law is challenged in court. It can occasionally embarrass a member of the majority party, who would prefer not to be “loud and proud” about a potentially unpopular vote.

Republicans sought to limit such opportunities when the House considered the last four bills pending on the morning of June 14, the final day of the 2020 legislative session. House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl proposed and his caucus approved a “time certain” motion to end debate on all bills and amendments at 1:00 pm. Democrats had prepared for battle on a budget bill, which Senate Republicans had amended in the middle of the night to limit how county auditors can process absentee ballot request forms.

Democratic State Representative Brian Meyer used his speaking time to question several House Republicans about the proposed restriction on county auditors. But when he asked Hinson to yield, she wasn’t available.

I pulled this clip from the official video of House proceedings on June 14. You can hear House Speaker Pat Grassley ask, “Is the lady in the chamber? I don’t see her in the chamber, Representative Meyer.”

Meyer noted that Hinson had been voting that morning and asked if one of the GOP legislators would go find her in the back. The speaker encouraged him to question someone else. About five minutes later, after dialogue with other Republicans, Meyer again sought to ask Hinson about the election law changes. She was still nowhere to be found.

The House Journal shows Hinson was present for all votes on June 14. How was she managing that?

Iowa lawmakers usually vote by pressing buttons at their desk. When they happen to be in another part of the room, perhaps chatting with a colleague, they typically signal their position with a thumbs up or down. The presiding speaker calls out their yes or no vote for the clerk to record. Roll calls published in the House Journals don’t indicate whether a lawmaker used the machine or gave a hand signal to vote.

As I watched the rest of the House debate on the budget bill, I saw Hinson was coming in from a back area to vote, then leaving before debate resumed. Around the 0:20 mark of this video, you can see her emerge from a door on the left. She held her thumb down for a while, then appeared to head toward her desk, since the speaker hadn’t noticed her. Around the 1:00 mark, Hinson left the chamber, having voted against the amendment.

Scrolling back to footage from earlier on June 14, I realized Hinson had also stayed out of the chamber when the House considered an infrastructure funding bill. In this clip, you can see her coming out of the door on the left at around 0:20 to vote for final passage of that bill. She left about 25 seconds later, before the House moved on to the larger budget bill containing the absentee voting language.

As mentioned above, Republicans cut off debate on all bills at 1:00 pm on June 14. After that point, no one could ask anyone else to yield to questions. Hinson returned to the chamber for the first vote that occurred after 1:00 pm, shown in this video. This time, she stayed until members adjourned for the year about 35 minutes later.

I wondered whether Hinson pulled the same disappearing act when the House debated other hot-button issues. Indeed, she did.

ABSENT FOR DEBATE ON ABORTION RESTRICTION SHE CO-SPONSORED

Hinson was one of seven women in the House GOP caucus who co-sponsored a last-minute amendment on June 13 mandating a 24-hour waiting period before all abortions. That legislation was a consolation prize for Republicans who could not find 51 votes in the House to advance a state constitutional amendment on abortion.

Hinson didn’t miss a vote on the penultimate day of the 2020 session. But she was not at her desk for the late-night debate, the legislature’s video indicates.

She came out briefly to help Republicans suspend a House rule that prohibits debate after midnight.

She popped in to the chamber again to vote for an uncontroversial online learning bill, leaving before members moved on to the vehicle for a 24-hour abortion waiting period.

House members debated the new abortion restriction for about 45 minutes. When it was time to vote on her amendment, Hinson came out to signal support and soon departed.

A few minutes later, House members voted on Meyer’s motion to change the bill title to reflect the new content. Hinson came back, signaled her thumbs down, and left immediately.

She would soon return to vote for final passage of the bill, then duck out again.

By this time it was after 11:00 pm, but the House took up one more bill that Saturday night, a non-controversial measure related to child care. Hinson didn’t take any chances. She stayed out of the chamber during the short debate, showed up to vote for the legislation, and left.

Why Hinson avoided the chamber for much of the proceedings on June 13 and 14 is unclear. She didn’t reply to emails seeking comment. While she wasn’t the only House member to spend part of the time in a back room, most legislators remained at their desks as the House considered the last few bills of the year.

ABSENT FOR MUCH OF COVID-19 IMMUNITY DEBATE

I decided to review another recent contentious House debate. Sure enough, Hinson left the chamber for extended periods.

Majority Leader Windschitl brought Senate File 2338 to the House floor around 10:20 pm on June 5. A Republican amendment to that bill would give employers and nursing home owners almost total protection against lawsuits related to the COVID-19 pandemic, even if gross negligence caused someone to be infected. Under the bill, prospective plaintiffs would have to prove they got coronavirus due to intentional misconduct, and they couldn’t file suit unless the illness led to hospitalization or death.

Using the same kind of “time certain” motion mentioned above, Republicans voted to cut off House debate at 11:00 pm. Democrats had offered a number of amendments and preferred a lengthy discussion of the COVID-19 immunity bill. The first Democratic amendment, making those who get coronavirus at work eligible for workers’ compensation, was ruled not germane. State Representative Scott Ourth’s motion to suspend the rules failed along party lines.

Next, House members considered an uncontroversial GOP amendment, which passed unanimously. Hinson voted for it and left the chamber.

Meyer offered the next Democratic amendment, which would have given safe harbor to businesses that could demonstrate they implemented best practices to slow the spread of coronavirus. Hinson briefly returned to vote down Meyer’s amendment.

Democratic State Representative Chris Hall then offered an amendment to require state disclosure of workplaces with known COVID-19 outbreaks. It was ruled not germane, setting up another vote to suspend the rules to allow its consideration. Around the 0:50 mark of this clip, you can see Hinson emerge, give a quick thumbs down to Hall’s amendment, and leave immediately after Speaker Grassley called out her vote.

Grassley declared an end to debate at exactly 11:00 pm. Hinson came back to approve the amendment to the COVID-19 immunity bill and stayed through the vote on final passage. Thanks to the “time certain” motion, no one could ask her to yield.

THE SCENARIO HINSON AVERTED

Although Hinson didn’t respond to messages asking why she left the chamber during these important legislative debates, this exchange from April 27, 2019 provides a clue.

On the final day of the 2019 legislative session, House Republicans approved a budget bill containing two new sections that outraged Democrats and spawned lawsuits. Democratic State Representative Heather Matson asked Hinson about one of them, which would make Planned Parenthood ineligible to receive federally-funded sex education grants.

The Democrat reminded House members that Hinson had once said she had used Planned Parenthood services and was committed to ensuring women would still have access to them.

Matson’s questioning also revealed that Hinson, who represents part of the Cedar Rapids suburbs, was unaware that Planned Parenthood was the only provider of sex education in Linn County under the Community Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention grant. Hinson was also not aware that Linn County’s teen pregnancy rate had dropped since Planned Parenthood began offering those services to area teens.

Incidentally, a Polk County District Court declared the law on sex ed funding unconstitutional in May 2020. The state plans to appeal.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Hinson will still need to answer for her legislative record in what is expected to be a highly competitive and expensive race against U.S. Representative Abby Finkenauer. Less than two weeks after a massive increase in voting by mail helped Iowa break its previous record for primary turnout, Hinson backed new rules on handling absentee ballot requests, which may exclude some eligible voters this fall.

I expect Finkenauer’s campaign and Democratic-aligned groups to attack Hinson’s vote to block lawsuits against negligent businesses like the Dubuque nursing home where eleven residents died of COVID-19.

EMILY’s List, which has endorsed Finkenauer, may remind voters that Hinson just co-sponsored an abortion restriction resembling the one Iowa’s Supreme Court struck down only two years ago.

But none of those attack ads will be able to include footage of Hinson awkwardly explaining her position on the Iowa House floor. In that respect, the Republican’s disappearing act already succeeded.

UPDATE: MORE CONVENIENT ABSENCES, THIS TIME MISSING HOUSE VOTES

After I published this post, a reader alerted me to another example of Hinson dodging House debate. This time, the maneuver allowed her to avoid voting on three Democratic amendments.

The House Journal for June 12 shows that Hinson and fellow Republican John Landon were present for all but three roll call votes that day. The House Action Archive for the same day shows that three lawmakers were “excused” for all of the June 12 proceedings, while Hinson and Landon were excused “until she arrives” and “until he arrives” in the evening, just before debate began on House File 2643, the large budget bill.

You can see Hinson leave the chamber around 9:15 pm on June 12.

Hall, who is the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, had submitted three amendments to this bill. The first was 20 pages long and contained numerous provisions related to COVID-19, such as (not an exhaustive list):

  • a prohibition on disconnecting utilities from any primary caregiver or anyone who became unemployed because of how the pandemic affected that person’s employer;
  • a ban on firing employees for contracting or being exposed to coronavirus;
  • a requirement for state agencies to give priority to Iowa-based companies when awarding contracts related to COVID-19;
  • language to make health care professionals eligible for workers’ compensation if they are volunteering in a capacity related to COVID-19;
  • new regulations for health insurance providers, such as requiring that they waive co-pays, prior authorization, or in-network limitations for medical services related to COVID-19;
  • language to speed up processing of unemployment claims; and
  • a requirement for the Division of Labor to hire five more Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors.
  • House Appropriations Chair Gary Mohr objected that Hall’s amendment was not germane. After the presiding speaker (State Representative John Wills) agreed, Hall moved to suspend the rules to allow consideration of his amendment. Hinson and Landon did not vote on that measure. In this clip, you can hear someone invoke House Rule 75, which requires every member present to vote unless excused “for special reasons.” House Chief Clerk Meghan Nelson then read a list of lawmakers who had been “previously excused,” including Hinson and Landon.

    A similar scenario played out two more times. Hall offered an amendment giving the Legislative Council oversight on how the governor was spending federal COVID-19 relief funds. Mohr objected, the speaker ruled the amendment not germane, Hall asked for a suspension of the rules, and House members voted that down, with Hinson and Landon not participating.

    Hall offered a third amendment, touching on a range of issues, such as:

  • mandating health insurance coverage for pre-existing conditions;
  • banning so-called conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth;
  • giving priority for Iowa-based businesses in awarding state contracts;
  • requiring full reimbursement for telehealth services;
  • considering child care employees essential workers;
  • setting standards for prioritizing health care workers and vulnerable populations in the event of a COVID-19 testing shortage.
  • Again, Hinson and Landon did not take part as Republicans voted down Hall’s motion to suspend the rules to allow consideration of his amendment, which the chair had ruled not germane.

    About a half-hour after Hinson and Landon were excused, they came back to vote for a Republican amendment to the same budget bill. That amendment was not germane, but its sponsor successfully moved to suspend the rules to allow its consideration. Hinson and Landon were needed to reach the mandatory 51-vote threshold. About seventeen second into this clip, you can see them returning. Near the end of the video, Hinson leaves the chamber again, phone in hand.

    A Democrat invoked Rule 75 again. This time, the House chief clerk announced only three names of “excused” members. Hall rose to speak, noting that “I was just curious, you know, a couple of members seem to not have been present for recent votes, but it did seem that they were able to come back for that one.”

    House Majority Leader Windschitl objected, citing House Rule 10, which states, “A member shall confine all remarks to the question under debate, shall be respectful of other members, and shall avoid referencing or questioning the motives of another member.” Wills ruled the point of order well-taken and instructed Hall to “confine your discussion to the amendment at hand.”

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