DES MOINES — The only member of the Iowa Senate not affiliated with one of the two major political parties said the 60,000 people he was elected to represent are being denied equal access to the legislative process because majority Republicans have refused to grant him committee assignments.
Sen. David Johnson of Ocheyedan, who changed his voter registration from Republican to “No Party” in June 2016 over his disagreements with now-President Donald Trump, said he is pressing for full committee participation in the upcoming 2018 legislative session.
Johnson said there is “well-established” precedent in Iowa’s legislative archives for Senate and House independent members to serve on committees. The refusal of Senate GOP leaders to grant him the customary committee assignment amounts to “legislation without representation,” he said.
“Like every one of my Senate colleagues, I represent about 60,000 Iowans, yet last session Republican leadership rejected my repeated requests to be appointed to vote on standing committees,” Johnson said in a statement Monday. “Those are votes denied to my constituents, who have been largely left waiting at the committee altar.”
In a Nov. 25 letter to Senate Secretary Charles Smithson, the chamber’s nonpartisan administrative officer, Johnson contended his independent status creates a “third caucus” with minority standing. “Our chamber rules do not define ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ to mean a system of only two political parties,” Johnson wrote. “Neither does the Iowa Constitution.”
Johnson said he has yet to receive an official response. The 2018 session convenes Jan. 8.
Republicans currently hold a 28-20-1 majority in the Senate, pending a Dec. 12 special election in District 3 to fill the vacancy caused by the recent resignation of Sen. Bill Anderson, R-Pearson.
Johnson noted that Senate Democrats gave up one voting seat so he could serve on the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee during the 2017 session. But, he said, that committee slot should go back to a Democrat. Johnson said Senate leaders need to follow a rule allowing him, like any senator, to serve on up to six standing committees, which mostly deal with policy matters.
“I can introduce legislation and can vote on the Senate floor,” he said. “But Republican leaders have blocked that very critical middle step, voting in committee to determine whether proposed legislation advances to the full Senate.”
According to Johnson’s research, the last independent elected to the Iowa Senate was William Schmedika of Hardin County in 1923.
“Included with my letter to the secretary are scores of pages copied from legislative documents showing that Sen. Schmedika was appointed to committees, was given bills to consider in subcommittee and voted in committee,” Johnson said. “My constituents are entitled to the same.”
Johnson said he has not ruled out pursuing legal action if Senate officials do not comply.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, issued a statement saying Sen. Johnson’s criticism is “without merit” given that as majority leader he only appoints members of the Senate majority to committee assignments.
“Since Sen. Johnson chose not to be a Republican, he is not a member of the majority and is a member of the minority. As rule 34 states, ‘Committee appointments shall be made by the majority leader for members of the majority, after consultation with the president, and by the minority leader for members of the minority, after consultation with the president.’
“His complaints regarding committee assignments should be addressed to the individual with authority to appoint minority members to committee assignments, the minority leader,” Dix office said in its statement. The Senate minority leader currently is Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines.
Senate President Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, issued a similar statement, saying that “during the 2017 session, we updated the Senate rules to assure the minority leader will appoint minority members to committees and the majority leader will appoint majority members to Senate committees. We will continue this practice for the 2018 session.”