There’s an old saying that goes: “to retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making.”
I have no experience with sausage making, but for the last dozen years, I have watched the making of laws at the Iowa Capitol. As the saying implies, it is often pretty disgusting.
While Iowans may not agree on the results of the recent session of the Iowa Legislature, I hope we could agree on one thing — the way the legislature makes laws is unacceptable.
If you’ve ever served on a committee or board, you probably have a good feeling for how meetings should be conducted and decisions made.
My guess is we could agree that well-run decision-making bodies:
• Provide ample notice of the subject matter to be discussed in order to give members a chance to think and talk about it.
• Try to ensure that documents pertinent to the meeting are kept short enough to allow them to be read and digested.
• Schedule meetings that begin and end at a reasonable hour.
• Want outcomes to be uncertain — allowing decision-makers an opportunity to listen to others and freely vote to do what they think is best.
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If only those procedures applied to the Iowa Legislature — but they don’t. Our elected lawmakers live by rules that we in the real world won’t or can’t.
Examples from the recent Republican-led session in Des Moines:
• The health and human services appropriations bill, a 120 page document that involved big issues and huge amounts of money (about $1.8 billion), was distributed to a committee that decided its fate about an hour before they voted on it.
• A final vote was taken on the controversial fetal heartbeat bill in the Iowa Senate at 2:20 in the morning.
• A complex 150 page tax bill was distributed to members on the final day of the legislative session. It had been in construction for months behind closed doors. Procedural rules were used that prevented thoughtful and needed debate. The fix was in — votes had been committed before they were cast.
This list of examples could go on and on and on. It’s not hard to see how bad this process is.
Decisions are made without adequate public notice or comment, with limited analysis or discussion; and too late in the day. Too many decisions are made behind closed doors, and too many votes are dictated by the member’s party vs. the member’s conscience.
Legislators who defend such a system will say: “Well, that’s just the way we do things here.”
To that I say — Just because it’s done that way doesn’t make it right. It’s wrong. And it’s time for change.
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There is no reason why the legislature has to operate the way it does. It operates the way it does because it chooses to.
It gets away with it because we let it. We’d never let a school board, city council, homeowners association board, church or nonprofit board, a Little League committee or anything else routinely operate that way.
One might ask — does it really matter? Should we really insist that it be changed?
Yes it does and yes we should. A bad process for making decisions leads to bad decisions. And when those decisions involve spending $7.5 billion of our money, we ought to expect better. We deserve better.
So how do we change things?
Iowans can challenge candidates running for a seat in the legislature to commit to changing the way business is done.
More importantly, Iowans can bring this issue to the forefront with the candidates who want to be our next Governor — the person who represents and works for ALL Iowans. Ask them if they will use the power of their office to sit down with legislative leaders to find ways to open up and improve the process.
Iowans can work for and vote for those candidates who will be disruptive — who will jettison the status quo and create something new, and better. I plan to, and I hope you will too.
• John Hale is co-owner of The Hale Group, an Ankeny-based consulting, advocacy and communication firm. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org