Iowa GOP lawmaker seeks review of governor's emergency powers

Republican State Representative Steven Holt plans to review possible changes to the governor’s emergency powers, “including requiring legislative approval for declared emergencies lasting over a certain period of time,” he posted on Facebook November 17. Holt has been a vocal critic of business closures to reduce spread of COVID-19 and is unhappy with several aspects of Governor Kim Reynolds’ latest emergency proclamation.

First elected to the legislature in 2014, Holt has chaired the House Judiciary Committee since 2019. Republican leaders have not yet announced committee assignments for the 2021 session, when their majority will grow to 59-41.

After refusing for months to require face coverings in public spaces, Reynolds issued a limited mask mandate on November 16, with exceptions for schools, religious services, and certain other situations. Her latest proclamation also ordered bars and restaurants to close at 10:00 pm, suspended some group sports and fitness activities, and limited “Social, community, business, or leisure gatherings” to fifteen people indoors or 30 people outdoors.

Holt posted the following morning that after “careful reflection,” he objected to several portions of the governor’s order. Government should not mandate mask wearing, in his opinion. He finds the limits on sports and business activities to be “inconsistent” and tantamount to “government picking winners and losers.”

I cannot support continued emergency authority being used to shut down businesses, leaving Iowans to rely on government and the good will of others for survival. Isn’t every business essential to the ones who depend on it to feed their families? The cure must not be worse than the disease.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I cannot support the use of government authority to tell my fellow citizens how many people can come into their homes. The implications of the precedent this sets, and how such authority could be used for nefarious purposes in the future, cannot be ignored. Indeed, the expectation of privacy void of government interference is at its highest in our homes. Our Founders recognized this and created the 3rd Amendment to the United States Constitution, to ensure the high threshold of approval by the Legislature before the quartering of troops would be allowed in the homes of American citizens. I believe this same reasoning and high standard should apply to any government use of force that intrudes into the homes of American citizens.

Holt went on to argue that parts of the COVID-19 response involve the use of executive authority “likely not contemplated by legislators […].”

I will be working with other like-minded legislators in the weeks to come to review emergency powers and what changes might be needed, including requiring legislative approval for declared emergencies lasting over a certain period of time. I will also work to ensure that emergency powers are restricted as they pertain to the fundamental right of freedom of religion and the fundamental right to provide for ourselves and our families.

While Holt expressed appreciation for Reynolds’ efforts, he warned, “We must take care that the precedents we set do not imperil the future of liberty, when someone might occupy the Governor’s mansion that does not share our current Governor’s noble intent.”

The governor’s emergency proclamations related to the coronavirus pandemic refer to the Iowa Constitution (Article IV, Sections 1 and 8) and several state laws:

  • Iowa Code Chapter 29C.6, which spells out the governor’s authority to issue disaster emergency proclamations;
  • Iowa Code 135.140 (6), which defines a “public health disaster”; and
  • Iowa Code 135.444, which concerns the Iowa Department of Public Health’s “duties related to a public health disaster.”
  • In addition to Holt, at least a half-dozen other Iowa House members and two state senators have publicly voiced concerns about business closures related to COVID-19.

    Whether House Speaker Pat Grassley or Majority Leader Matt Windschitl would provoke a fight over emergency powers is an open question. The GOP-controlled legislature has rarely opposed the governor in public since Reynolds assumed the state’s highest office in 2017, and earlier this year expanded the governor’s authority to allocate funds for pandemic response.

    Appearing on Simon Conway’s WHO Radio program on November 17, Holt said he had had “great communication” with the speaker and majority leader, who “respect individual legislators’ right to speak their minds. […] you know, we’re not the Borg, there might be 59 Republicans in the House, but we don’t have a collective brain.” He added that he’d heard from many supporters who are also concerned that “liberty is under assault in our country.”
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    Appendix 1: Full text of Representative Steve Holt’s November 17 Facebook post (photos here and here)

    After careful reflection, I have concluded I cannot support portions of the Governor’s Enhanced Safety Measures announced on Monday, November 16th, 2020.

    As I have stated since the beginning of the Coronavirus response, we cannot allow the consequences of combatting the virus to become worse than the virus itself. I have also stated my belief that government has an obligation to provide the most reliable information possible to the free men and women of our country, make recommendations based upon that information, and then allow citizens to make decisions that are best for themselves and their families.

    If government believes that masks will help slow the spread of the Coronavirus, then government should make that case to the people and encourage their use; however, I cannot support the mandating of masks by government. Mask mandates will likely have the opposite effect of what was intended, as opposed to citizens voluntarily agreeing that wearing masks is in the best interests of themselves and their families.

    The suspension of certain sporting events and the mandates on certain businesses are inconsistent and result in the unintended consequence of government picking winners and losers. These mandates will harm many small businesses only just now recovering from the last round of mandates, and behind each of these small businesses is a fellow citizen struggling to save their American dream and provide for themselves and their families. I cannot support continued emergency authority being used to shut down businesses, leaving Iowans to rely on government and the good will of others for survival. Isn’t every business essential to the ones who depend on it to feed their families? The cure must not be worse than the disease.

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I cannot support the use of government authority to tell my fellow citizens how many people can come into their homes. The implications of the precedent this sets, and how such authority could be used for nefarious purposes in the future, cannot be ignored. Indeed, the expectation of privacy void of government interference is at its highest in our homes. Our Founders recognized this and created the 3rd Amendment to the United States Constitution, to ensure the high threshold of approval by the Legislature before the quartering of troops would be allowed in the homes of American citizens. I believe this same reasoning and high standard should apply to any government use of force that intrudes into the homes of American citizens.

    Government’s response to the Coronavirus has shown us for the first time the implications and use of executive authority that were likely not contemplated by legislators at the time emergency powers were granted to the Executive Branch. I will be working with other like-minded legislators in the weeks to come to review emergency powers and what changes might be needed, including requiring legislative approval for declared emergencies lasting over a certain period of time. I will also work to ensure that emergency powers are restricted as they pertain to the fundamental right of freedom of religion and the fundamental right to provide for ourselves and our families.

    None of us can fully appreciate what our Governor is facing as she navigates the many challenges of the Coronavirus and weighs the mountain of recommendations and information placed before her. The buck stops at her desk and she must make the decisions to lead our state at this difficult time. I appreciate our Governor’s leadership, and I know that the thoughts and prayers of many of us are with our Governor and her staff. Yet, there are many profound issues before us that cannot be ignored, that have far-reaching implications. We must take care that the precedents we set do not imperil the future of liberty, when someone might occupy the Governor’s mansion that does not share our current Governor’s noble intent.

    Appendix 2: Governor Kim Reynolds’ disaster emergency proclamation of November 16, 2020

    Top image: Profile picture from Representative Steve Holt’s Facebook page.

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