Legislative sausage making: Who cares about the process?

March 21, 2022 8:00 am

A man makes sausage. (Photo by Getty Images)

State Rep. Bobby Kaufmann recently remarked at a legislative committee meeting: “The people back home …, they don’t give a sh** about the process. They care about results.”

Kaufmann, who recently made news for flipping the bird with both hands at a public event in the Statehouse rotunda, is ever classy. But I laughed when I read his remark because he was repeating, profanity and all, some of the first advice I received from a veteran reporter when I started covering the Iowa Legislature.

The old cliché that nobody wants to watch the sausage being made isn’t literally true these days. If it were, we’d see a lot less of it on Food TV.  But it’s generally still good advice when it comes to legislation – except when lawmakers try to game the process and it gets in the way of what they consider progress.

That’s what happened last week, when House Republican lawmakers tried to circumvent their own chamber rules to ram through a bastardized bill that had failed to pass in other forms.

Led by freshman Rep. Michael Bousselot, R-Ankeny, the House took up a bill dealing with the definition of wrecked or salvaged vehicles that had already passed the Senate on a vote of 44-1. He tried to replace its entire content during floor debate with an entirely different and significantly more controversial mashup of two other, unrelated bills dealing with workplace vaccine mandates and liability protections for trucking companies.

I don’t know if Bousselot drew the short straw, or if it was an elaborate hazing prank on the part of his caucus. Either way, the plan rolled in the ditch when the bill did not have enough Republican support to survive a procedural challenge. Twelve GOP members voted no. Oops.

Iowans have seen this tactic before, perhaps most notably when the Iowa House in 2011 rewrote a Senate bill dealing with raccoon hunting to legalize mourning dove hunting without an opportunity for public input. Which is exactly why lawmakers chose to throw out their rulebook: The topic was flamingly controversial, with polls showing a majority of Iowans in opposition.

Last week’s bill failed, not because Republicans objected to the process, but mostly because the vaccine mandate proposal was a failed effort at compromise within the majority party. Republican lawmakers already gutted workplace vaccine mandates last year by creating exemptions broad enough to cover anyone who doesn’t want a shot. They were reluctant to go further, however, because some in the GOP still care what business groups have to say (except when it comes to persecuting LGBTQ kids).

But there’s a cadre of hard-core, anti-vaccine and/or anti-mandate Republicans who want to nuke workplace vaccine requirements. They didn’t think the bill, which would have imposed a $50,000 fine on employers who required a vaccine mandate, went far enough. I think a few of them won’t be happy until they outlaw all vaccines for everyone, just so nobody can sideline the unvaccinated. They’d rather bring back polio than sacrifice a tiny iota of their precious freedom for the common good.

We haven’t seen the end of this: It appears there are enough Republicans holding out for draconian anti-employer penalties to gum up the works as lawmakers attempt to pass a budget and adjourn in a few weeks.

The other part of the bill would severely limit Iowans’ ability to win compensation if they are injured or a family member is killed by a negligent commercial vehicle driver. The motor truckers lobby has been trying for a couple of years to win this liability protection, even though the sort of “nuclear” jury awards they fear have not happened in Iowa. I think less liability for trucking companies will lead to less safety on Iowa’s roads, but this lobbying group is well-funded and persistent. We haven’t seen the last of this proposal, either.

And even though it crashed and burned last week, it’s also probably not the last time we will see this tactic with legislation. A House committee last week clipped out an entire barbering bill and replaced it with a proposal to delay the use of eminent domain for liquid carbon pipelines. When Democrats objected to the move because of the lack of opportunity for public discussion, that’s when Rep. Kaufmann said the people back home don’t give a you-know-what about process.

And he’s right, most people don’t. But that process is the only thing that gives Iowans time to learn what’s happening in the Legislature and to make their voices heard. The more the majority party gets away with choosing expediency over transparency, the less your voice matters.

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs. She has led national-award-winning coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and the Register’s Iowa Poll.