House committee advances ‘unconstitutional’ challenge of presidential orders

U.S. President Joe Biden signs executive actions in the Oval Office of the White House on Jan. 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images)

An Iowa House committee advanced a bill Thursday after its chief backer declared the measure unconstitutional. 

House File 481, introduced by Rep. John Wills, R-Spirit Lake, is aimed at reviewing presidential executive orders to see if they are constitutional. 

The bill also would prohibit state and local governments, and any entity that gets money from them, from complying with a presidential order that “restricts a person’s rights or which the attorney general has determined to be unconstitutional.”

House State Government Committee Chairman Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, who managed the bill Thursday, acknowledged the legislation is unconstitutional, but added that he felt compelled to make a point. 

“I believe that the state of Iowa should have a proven mechanism to be able to review executive orders for constitutionality and subsequently advise our agencies as to compliance,” Kaufmann said. 

“I think this is an equal opportunity concern. I don’t believe President Trump had the ability to legally authorize construction of the Keystone pipeline. I also absolutely do not believe that President Biden had the authorization to shut down the Keystone pipeline,” Kaufmann said.

Kaufmann added that he considers the bill legally suspect, too. “I do agree that this legislation is not constitutional,” he said. “The point of this is to join other states to get the attention of the Supreme Court to finally get a review on all presidential executive orders,” Democrat or Republican.

Rep. Christina Bohannan, D-Iowa City, University of Iowa law professor, said Kaufmann was right on one count: the legislation is unconstitutional. 

“I am frankly shocked that we are sitting here in a state government committee, discussing whether to pass a piece of legislation that is admittedly blatantly unconstitutional,” Bohannan said. 

Bohannan said the timing of the legislation is curious considering President Trump, a Republican like the Iowa legislative majority, issued 220 executive orders in his single term in office. Bohannan said that was more than any other president in a single term in four decades.

“I have no doubt that if a Democrat-led state legislature introduced these kinds of bills, saying our state government did not have to follow executive orders from President Trump, that the Republicans would have said they were crazy,” Bohannan said.

“It might be dressed in statutory language, but let’s be clear — this bill is state-sponsored rebellion against the federal government. It’s also a total waste of taxpayer money,” she added.

Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines, also opposed the bill. Hunter said Kaufmann, who has led the committee for three years, failed to introduce the bill while Trump was in office. Democrat Joe Biden became president in January.

“In my opinion, this is a straight poke in the eye of President Biden,” Hunter said. 

Rep. Jon Jacobsen, R-Council Bluffs, supported the bill. 

“Throughout our nation’s history, we’ve had to have checks and balances on unwieldy executive orders,” Jacobsen said. 

The bill advanced on a party-line vote to the full House as a committee bill.