DES MOINES — The Iowa Legislature has had special sessions, sessions that ran long and even a couple that were shorter than planned. But no one recalls lawmakers suspending a session.
It appears that in nearly 174 years of Iowa statehood, a legislative session has never been suspended for war, natural disaster or health emergency — until now.
Shortly after midnight Tuesday morning, the Iowa House and Iowa Senate voted unanimously to hit the pause button for 30 days and left open the possibility their hiatus from the Capitol could be longer. The suspension was in response to public health concerns about large gatherings.
The Legislature involves 150 lawmakers as well as their clerks, high school pages, lobbyists and Capitol and legislative agency staffs. Clerks and pages were sent home, but will be paid for the usual 100-day session, according to legislative staff.
With visitors, including school tour groups, it’s not unusual for the number of people inside the Capitol to reach several hundred to 1,000 a day when the Legislature is in session.
A common question around the Capitol was whether lawmakers had ever suspended their session. No one could recall a suspension, but as one Statehouse veteran noted, she wasn’t around for the 1918 flu pandemic.
Turns out, neither were legislators, according to State Historical Society of Iowa’s State Curator Leo Landis. That’s because the Legislature met every other year until 1969. It wasn’t in session in 1918.
There was an effort to call a special session of the Legislature in 1918. Not to deal with the flu, but to ratify the 18th Amendment — Prohibition, according to Landis’ research. But there was no session that spring.
The timing of Iowa legislative sessions may have something to do with the absence of session suspensions. Sessions start the second Monday of January and are scheduled for 100 days in even-numbered years and 110 days in odd-numbered years.
“Timing has had everything to do with the suspension of sessions as spring has not typically been a period of widespread transmission of communicable diseases and most national crises occurred when the Iowa General Assembly was adjourned,” Landis wrote in an email.
The Legislature also has had the good fortune to be out of session when other national or international threats occurred, he said. In April 1865, when President Abraham Lincoln was shot, it was an election year for the Legislature, so it was not in session.
Iowa changed to even-year elections for the Iowa General Assembly in 1900 with session beginning the following January.
“The flu pandemic of October and November 1918 had largely subsided by the time of the 1919 session convened,” Landis said. “Session had also long concluded when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. That was also the case with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.”
The COVID-19 pandemic “is different than any others of the past 100 years,” Landis said, “and it is not surprising that our legislative leaders suspended the session.”
Lawmakers expect to return to the Capitol April 13. But the legislation they passed Tuesday morning gives the Legislative Council of leaders and senior lawmakers the authority to call them into session sooner.
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