Republicans who control the Tennessee House of Representatives used their supermajority this month to expel two Black lawmakers for “disorderly behavior.” State Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson had helped lead a protest against gun violence in the House chamber, disrupting legislative work for a little less than an hour.
The power play was quickly revealed as a miscalculation. Jones and Pearson gained national acclaim and many new supporters. They were back at work within a week, after local government bodies reappointed them to the state House.
Meanwhile, the overreaction generated a tremendous amount of negative media coverage. Many reports noted that Tennessee Republicans had ousted two young Black men, while a third Democrat who took part in the same protest (an older white woman) barely survived the expulsion vote.
The episode also brought greater scrutiny to Tennessee’s Republican lawmakers. This week, a vice chair of the House GOP caucus resigned from the legislature after a Nashville-based television station uncovered evidence that he had sexually harassed at least one intern. An ethics committee had investigated that matter in secret, and the House speaker had imposed no consequences for the grotesquely inappropriate behavior.
Watching all of this unfold, I wondered whether anything like this scenario had happened, or could happen, to an Iowa lawmaker.
IOWA CONSTITUTION ALLOWS LAWMAKERS TO BE EXPELLED
Much like the Tennessee constitution, Article III, Section 9 of Iowa’s constitution allows each chamber of the state legislature to “punish members for disorderly behavior, and, with the consent of two thirds, expel a member, but not a second time for the same offense […].”
I could not find any account of an Iowa representative or senator being removed by colleagues, so I turned to experts with a better understanding of state history. After reviewing records from Iowa’s General Assembly and territorial legislature prior to statehood, Legislative Services Agency staff were unable to find any evidence that the Iowa House or Senate have ever expelled one of their members.
Republicans hold a two-thirds majority of 34 seats in the 50-member Iowa Senate. So in theory, they have the votes to exercise this constitutional power. The House GOP caucus is currently three members short of the two-thirds majority they would need to expel a Democrat from the lower chamber.
Incidentally, Iowa’s legislature requires a “constitutional majority” to act, not just a majority of lawmakers present. That is, a simple majority of all elected members (at least 51 in the House and 26 in the Senate) must vote to approve a bill, motion, or resolution. When a two-thirds majority is required, as to expel a member or override a governor’s veto, that’s two-thirds of members elected to the body, not two-thirds of those who happen to be in the chamber on a given day.
HOW AN EXPULSION COULD HAPPEN IN IOWA
My next question was how would such a scenario play out in the Iowa legislature? Under the codes of ethics approved by the Iowa House and Senate, each chamber’s Ethics Committee is authorized to investigate alleged violations of legislative rules or the provisions of state law covering government ethics and lobbying. The committees may also ask the chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court to appoint an independent special counsel to investigate the matter.
The last time that happened was in 2013, when Chief Justice Mark Cady appointed Mark Weinhardt to investigate allegations surrounding State Senator Kent Sorenson’s conduct before the 2012 Iowa Republican caucuses.
The ethics committees can dismiss a complaint, or recommend that the full House or Senate impose sanctions ranging from censure or reprimand to suspension or expulsion from the legislative body.
Tennessee House Republicans didn’t go through the motions of a rigorous investigation. They drew up resolutions to expel three Democrats only a few days after the protest in the chamber. Could the majority party in Iowa bypass the process outlined in the chambers’ ethics codes?
In the Iowa House, a majority of at least 51 representatives can vote to suspend the rules (for instance, to immediately consider an amendment ruled not germane to a bill). The Iowa Senate also allows rules to be suspended “by an affirmative vote of a constitutional majority” (26 senators). So in theory, House or Senate members could vote to consider a motion to expel a member, even without formal action by the Ethics Committee.
HOW LEGISLATIVE RULE-BREAKING IS ACTUALLY PUNISHED IN IOWA
In practice, it’s hard to imagine anything like the Tennessee debacle playing out here. In the unlikely event that Iowa legislators staged a loud protest inside the House or Senate chambers, the presiding officer would most likely ask them to leave or have them removed. Iowa House rules allow the speaker to have the chamber cleared “in case of any disturbance or disorderly conduct.”
I’ve never heard of any effort to severely punish an Iowa legislator for breaking rules of debate and decorum. One brouhaha received national media attention in February 2021, when House Speaker Pat Grassley refused to recognize Democratic State Representative Beth Wessel-Kroeschell to speak during floor debate. Her offense was wearing jeans in violation of the House dress code, in order to make a point about the failure of House leaders to issue a mask mandate during the COVID-19 pandemic. Grassley allowed Wessel-Kroeschell to remain in the chamber and keep voting on bills and amendments.
More often, members of the Iowa House or Senate call a point of order to assert that a member of the other party has violated a rule of debate, such as by holding up a visual aid, impugning the motives of a colleague, straying from the terms of the bill being debated, or using foul language.
If the presiding officer finds the point well taken, the legislator may be asked to stop speaking or confine their remarks to the topic at hand. During one recent Iowa House debate, Democratic State Representative J.D. Scholten wrapped up his case against a firearms measure by saying, “This bill—the level of not giving a shit is impressive.” The inevitable point of order came too late, because Scholten was already done speaking.
Some Iowa lawmakers have stepped down voluntarily amid evidence of serious misconduct. Most recently, Iowa Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix resigned in March 2018, hours after Iowa Starting Line published a video showing the Senate’s top Republican in an apparent romantic embrace with a lobbyist.
Sorenson resigned from the legislature in October 2013, immediately after the special counsel published his report. Weinhardt found “probable cause to believe” the senator violated the Iowa Senate Code of Ethics by receiving compensation for his work on behalf of presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, and making false statements about that compensation. Sorenson was later convicted and served time in federal prison for lying under oath and campaign finance violations.