In Iowa, 721,344 registered voters checked the “no party” box, according to the latest state figures. That’s more than the 653,032 registered Republicans and 604,493 Democrats. It’s an equation unlikely to change considering our growing dissatisfaction with parties and partisanship, particularly among young voters.
Come election time, partisan candidates will be campaigning hard to pull those crucial, independent “swing” voters into their corner. A fair number of vote-seekers will tout their own independent streak, insisting they’re willing to buck party prescriptions to do right by their constituents. Some will produce mailings and other campaign materials that fail to mention their party altogether.
So when it comes to begging for votes, independence is highly coveted. But when it comes to governing, in particular at the Iowa Statehouse, independence is shunned.
Just ask state Sen. David Johnson of Ocheyedan in northwest Iowa. His principles prompted him to leave the Republican Party in 2016, making him the Senate’s only independent member.
But Republicans who control the Senate have refused to permit Johnson to serve on standing committees that play a key role in lawmaking. During the 2017 session, minority Democrats gave Johnson one of their seats on the Natural Resources Committee, but Johnson was unable to participate in other key committee debates.
Johnson is again seeking committee assignments for the 2018 session, on behalf of his 60,000 constituents. He’s asked the Senate’s top parliamentarian, Charlie Smithson, to direct majority Republicans to grant him full committee assignments. Johnson argues as a minority caucus of one, he’s entitled to six committee slots, citing the historic precedent of an independent senator who served on committees in 1923.
Smithson has yet to respond, and Republicans have balked, saying Johnson should ask Democrats for assignments. But Johnson is not a member of the Democratic caucus.
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This is unacceptable. Freezing him out of committees disregards the need for Johnson’s constituents to be fully represented in the process of lawmaking. Republicans appear to be putting their desire to punish his defection and retake his Senate seat ahead of that need.
And this saga underscores the greater need for lowering the towering institutional barriers erected to perpetuate two-party control of the legislative process. It’s only a matter of time before Iowans dissatisfied with parties and hungry for a third way around partisan train wrecks choose to send an independent lawmaker to the Capitol, and maybe more. Changes must be made to make sure those representatives or senators have a seat at the committee table.
As we see it, the Senate currently has three caucuses, including Johnson’s caucus of one. He should be allowed to choose his six committees. Republicans who run the Senate should find a solution to make it happen, and prove their respect for Iowans’ independence is more than a campaign slogan.
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