January 18, 2022

COLUMN: Senate change won’t better inform Iowans

Typically, in the days leading up to the start of a new session of the Iowa Legislature, the attention is on lawmakers’ goals and priorities — and on the pledges they make to work together for the good of the people of Iowa.

This year, however, Republican leaders who control the Iowa Senate announced a controversial decision that erases more than a century of openness — evicting journalists from the floor of the Senate chamber.

This ill-conceived action makes Iowa an outlier among the legislatures in the 50 states. You could count on one hand those that do not allow journalists on the floor of their legislative chambers.

Nowhere in their decision do Senate leaders pretend this change will better inform the people of Iowa about the important work the Senate does.

There is a reason they are not saying that — because, clearly, the people of Iowa are not going to know more about what the Senate is doing or have a better understanding of why senators are making the decisions they will make.

If the unspoken reason for the change is that Iowa Senate leaders are peeved about media coverage of the Senate in recent years, then moving journalists farther away from the senators will not improve either the accuracy or the fairness of news coverage.

Journalists are not some modern-day addition to Iowa government. When the Capitol was built in the late 1800s, working space was provided at the front of the House chamber and the Senate chamber for reporters who regularly covered the lawmakers’ debates, deliberations and deals.

Through the Great Depression and wars, through hard-fought debates over liquor sales and gambling, school consolidations and the creation of community colleges, and over a multitude of other issues big and small — journalists were sitting there at the front of the Senate, reporting on these proposals, the amendments being offered and the parliamentary maneuvers in the magnificent chamber.

In the first 40 years of the Capitol’s existence, newspaper reporters had the so-called “press bench” to themselves. When radio arrived in Iowa in the 1920s, legislative leaders adapted and this new type of journalist was accommodated. When television arrived in the 1950s, legislative leaders adapted again and TV journalists were allowed to work from the Senate floor.

But now, with the arrival of reporters for websites providing news and opinion content, Senate leaders claim to be unable to accommodate this newest era of journalism.

The decision by Senate leaders is especially poorly timed because the number of reporters covering the Legislature fulltime, in Iowa and in many other states, has been dwindling as newspapers merge and as their employment shrinks.

In my role as the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, I issued a statement Friday on the Senate decision. And on Saturday, the Washington Post called to ask about the decision.

Here’s what I said: “All Iowans should be troubled, as we are, by the decision of Iowa Senate leaders. … Barring journalists from access to the floor of the Senate chamber does not continue Iowa’s long and proud tradition of transparency that is a foundation of our democracy.”

I said the decision is a blow to transparency because it makes it more difficult for journalists to help the public understand the many issues lawmakers are dealing with and how those issues will affect the people of our state.

I explained how reporters could catch the eye of a senator and with a nod arrange a quick conversation off the Senator floor to get clarification of how a bill is evolving. Reporters could notice a couple of key adversaries off to the side in the chamber having a whispered conversation and could then ask if an important compromise was in the works.

One of the comments I made to the Washington Post reporter was that government transparency is even more important when one political party controls the House, the Senate and the governor’s office, regardless of which party that is.

With one party having what is called a “trifecta,” it is easier to set aside rules and norms so decisions can be made with less scrutiny by the public or by journalists, who serve as the eyes and ears of the public by gathering information, providing important context and background, and by asking government officials questions citizens themselves are not in a position to ask.

The decision to boot journalists from the Senate floor did not occur in isolation.

A few years ago, Republican leaders in the Legislature shortened the length of the advance notice required before subcommittee meetings occur. This was an important change because it is now more difficult for Iowans to know what bills are being taken up and to reach out with their opinions before lawmakers vote on these issues.

Lawmakers like to talk about how they are elected to go to Des Moines and represent the people. Last week’s troubling decision by Iowa Senate leaders shows that some lawmakers have forgotten whom they work for.

Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and a former opinion page editor at the Des Moines Register. He can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com.