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We Get Squeezed Out as Legislators Change the Rules
Power-hungry, win-at-all-costs moves
A disturbing trend in American governance these days is when legislators eliminate opposition by simply changing the rules of the game. These rules changes are squeezing out legislators in the minority party, journalists, and citizens.
There are a number of examples this week. Here in Des Moines, Republicans in control of the Iowa legislature fast-tracked the school voucher bill by dramatically altering the normal legislative process. In the House, where the plan to spend public money on private schools has died each of the past two years, Republicans created a special Education Reform Committee made up of those supporting the plan. This kind of bill has in the past needed to go through the regular Education Committee. But leadership sensed opposition there, so they just changed the rules and made up their own committee. Shocking no one, it passed. House leaders also changed the rules so that the bill, which commits hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to this new program, didn’t have to go through the appropriations committee, as funding bills usually are required to do.
Over in the Iowa Senate, the House-passed bill raced through floor passage without the usual amendments from those opposed to the bill, or even supporters who might want to try to improve the bill. How did leaders do that? By changing the rules to block senators from introducing ANY amendments. None. Reasonable people certainly can disagree on the merits of this controversial bill but those legislators, and the Iowans they represent, were completely locked out of the process. Senate leaders didn’t want any changes to the bill because then it would have to go back to the House for consideration of those changes. And that, my fellow Iowans, would have messed up the Hollywood movie script dreamed up by Governor Reynolds and her sycophants in the legislature.
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The Arizona legislature jumped on the rule-changing bandwagon this week. Republicans in control of both houses of the legislature adopted new rules to exempt themselves from the state’s open records law. The Washington Post reports state senators will not have to disclose any text messages sent on personal devices. Want to promise a lobbyist support for a bill in return for a generous campaign contribution? Just send the lobbyist a text message and no one will ever be able to find the evidence. And all emails and other documents from lawmakers in both the Arizona House and Senate will be destroyed after 90 days. As the Post writes, that will be “…in many cases well before members of the public know to ask for them.” With all the election-deniers in Arizona, I would argue citizens need more transparency, not less.
How did we get to a place where lawmakers are able to get away with such naked, power-hungry, win-at-all-costs moves? Clearly, the changes that have rocked journalism and information flow play a role here. At one time, politicians wouldn’t have dreamed of such drastic rule changes. These days, there does not seem to be any political price to pay. The internet has allowed politicians to talk directly to their base and bypass traditional media sources. As news organizations have lost audience and advertising revenue, they have reduced newsroom staff that used to ride herd over those in power. And Americans themselves seem to not be paying attention, reading only news sources that reinforce their own political views.
It's a dangerous trend. We need legislative rules we can count on, not rules that change at the whim of those in power. We need openness in government. Legislators are supposed to be accountable to us. We elect them. They spend our tax dollars. They make decisions that affect our lives, but when we as voters get shut out of the process, when we can’t even ask our representatives to propose an amendment, when we turn up by the hundreds at a bill’s hearing and get completely ignored, when we can’t see the documents legislators use, we are teetering on the brink of authoritarianism. If Iowans, and Arizonans and Americans let them get away with it, we can count on more outrageous rules changes that will serve the needs of those in power, not us.
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Robert Leonard: Deep Midwest: Politics and Culture, Bussey
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