Not long after the 2019 legislative session got underway, the Iowa Senate took a misguided step backward on transparency and sent an ominous signal to Iowans who care what happens at the Capitol.
In the General Assembly, most bills are referred for consideration to legislative committees, addressing subjects such as education or human services.
But those bills first are discussed by subcommittees, usually made up of three lawmakers. It’s the lone step in the committee process where Iowans and interest groups can weigh in on legislation in an open, public discussion.
But in the opening days of the session, several committees in the Republican-controlled Senate adopted rules eliminating previous provisions mandating public access and 24-hour notice of subcommittee meetings. Iowa’s open meetings law doesn’t apply to the Legislature, and the GOP majority can set its own rules governing procedure.
Republicans insist little will change and that new rules simply will give committee chairs more “flexibility” in moving legislation through the process.
Democrats decried the move as an effort to speed legislation to passage without giving Iowans an ample chance to be heard.
Partisanship aside, open meetings and notice indeed are vital to the public’s ability to track and affect the legislative process. Providing less than a day’s notice of subcommittee discussions hampers the ability of Iowans from outside Des Moines to learn of meetings and participate in deliberations.
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Instead, majority lawmakers and allied lobbyists likely will be the first to know. Knowledge is power in the legislative process.
Too often during the previous GOP-controlled General Assembly, bills addressing important issues moved swiftly through the process, leaving Iowans too little opportunity to provide input or apply the brakes. The Senate’s rule change would seem to add a new, higher gear to that turbocharged process.
It’s a bad idea, no matter who controls the Senate. Surely Republicans would object if the same move were made by a Democratic majority.
A desire for scheduling flexibility is not remotely as important as Iowans’ need to understand and be heard on legislative issues affecting their lives. Senate Republicans should put openness and notice back into their rules.
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