116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Rumor has it that both the Iowa House and Senate have Government Oversight Committees. Turns out the rumor is true, although there was little evidence of their existence during the 2021 legislative session that ended last month.
Ideally, Government Oversight Committees oversee and investigate government decision making, especially by executive branch agencies. Maybe you’ve heard of checks and balances.
For example, Government Oversight panels might seek to understand how the governor’s office spent, or misspent, federal COVID-19 aid. Or maybe the committees could explore the decision to turn down $95 million in federal dollars for surveillance testing in schools. The oversight committees might be curious how Test Iowa performed after the governor awarded a large no-bid contract to Ashton Kutcher’s Utah buds.
State Rep. Chuck Isenhart, D-Dubuque, a House Oversight Committee member, asked Chair Rep. Holly Brink in April to convene an oversight hearing to assess the state’s future capacity for infectious disease prevention and response, and local public health needs.
Isenhart requested, “To the extent possible, the inquiry should appraise the roles of the General Assembly, the governor and county boards of health — as well as the federal government — as they employed their respective powers and responsibilities …” during the pandemic.
Sounds like a good idea. After all, the Legislature basically allowed Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds run Iowa’s entire pandemic response, or lack thereof. As a coequal branch of state government, GOP legislative leaders should be interested in assessing what went right and wrong.
Hundreds of thousands of Iowans were sickened and more than 6,000 died. It’s among the toughest challenges ever faced by the state, and what if it happens again?
But Isenhart’s request has yet to even be acknowledged. That’s not a big surprise. Republicans who run the Golden Dome of Wisdom and the oversight committees also dismissed requests for lawmakers to delve into the other pandemic issues listed above.
Instead, the bright light of oversight was shone on other matters.
On Jan. 27, according to the Legislature’s website, the House delved into the case of a University of Iowa dental student who was called for a disciplinary hearing after defending President Donald Trump’s executive order banning certain types of diversity training. The committee held three meetings on the incident. University officials eventually apologized and admitted the case had been mishandled.
On March 9, the House Government Oversight Committee used its final meeting of the session to spend two hours blasting Ames school district officials for holding a “Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action.” Republicans on the panel were, in particular, incensed by a document detailing the racist motivations behind voting changes.
One lawmaker called it “garbage.” Others might call it American history, repeating itself.
As for the Senate Government Oversight Committee, Democrats urged majority Republicans to investigate, among other COVID issues, serious problems with coronavirus data reporting, the firing of a Department of Public Health staffer who provided public information to a reporter and the decision to keep the state’s COVID-19 vaccine advisory committee meetings closed to the public.
Instead, the committee met just once, on Jan. 12, to adopt rules.
First rule, apparently, don’t meet again.
Not to belittle the importance of campus speech rights for conservatives and the continuing plight of offended lawmakers, (OK, maybe I am belittling that second one) but it seems like there might have been some bigger fish to fry with regard to government oversight.
Unfortunately, Republicans are far more interested in battering their enemies, or imagined enemies, and protecting the governor than making sure our government is functioning properly as it addressed the small matters of life and death.
Would Democrats have used hearings to score their own political points? Of course. But that’s no excuse for basically abandoning the Legislature’s oversight duties.
With the GOP trifecta, accountability has all but disappeared.
Government oversight has been fitted with partisan blinders. Republican lawmakers skip legislative forums, dodge reporters, snub editorial boards and avoid virtually any setting where they might be questioned on how they’re running the state. Only supporters, friendly special interests and, of course, donors can make it inside the bubble.
When you only listen to a few people, you end up passing legislation that harms a lot of people. And when you abandon oversight, it can, and likely will, come back to haunt you.
“If we aren’t holding ourselves responsible for the performance of state government, others will it do if for us. It won’t be pretty and our knee-jerk reactions probably won’t result in the most thoughtful improvements,” Isenhart said in an email.
Oversight committees are permitted to meet in the interim between sessions. So there’s still time to delve into these issues. And it could snow on Independence Day. Anything is possible.
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