DES MOINES — House Republicans have refused to adopt rules requiring face coverings at the Capitol or to allow members to participate in committee meetings and floor votes from outside the Statehouse during the coronavirus pandemic.
Republicans, who control the House and Senate, said Thursday current protocols that recommend, but don’t require that people wear face masks, are working.
“I have seen very few people who are not either utilizing social distancing or wearing a mask even when they are able to social distance,” said House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford.
However, Rep. Brian Meyer, D-Des Moines, warned, “It’s only a matter of time before something happens.”
Already, a person reported testing positive for COVID-19 after being at the Capitol last week.
Meyer applauded the Republican leaders for steps taken to accommodate legislators and the public in the process of creating legislation.
“But we are falling short,” he said.
Meyer offered a handful of amendments to require masks everywhere in the Capitol complex or at least require them in House committee and subcommittee meetings.
He also sought to change House rules to allow members to participate in meetings and vote telephonically or by other electronic means.
“We can do it better,” Meyer said. “We can allow for people to have comments. We can allow for members to vote remotely. We can allow for interested parties to come into this building and feel safe or go online and make their comments heard.”
In the end, his amendment were voted down, and the session rules adopted without any of the measures he sought. House Resolution 3 was approved 55-35.
"We are going to require people to be present to vote. That’s it. The Democrats want to allow virtual voting. You can certainly make a case for that. It's a philosophical thing. We will say in order to vote, you have to be present to vote," said Rep. Brent Siegrist, R-Council Bluffs.
Siegrist, the former House speaker who returned to office after his first tenure in the Legislature spanned 1984 to 2002, noted "I'm not in leadership now."
"That's the decision the caucus made and I'll support that. In terms of safety, I think the safety is there," he said, noting from what he's seen there's been 95% mask usage.
Rep. Charlie McConkey, D-Council Bluffs, blasted the decision.
"This affects everyone. The virus doesn’t care what political party you belong to," he said, noting the proposed precautions would've worked to protect capitol staff. "They have to be here. They can’t work remotely. We should take precautions for them.
"We’re not doing as good a job as we should do. We want to protect the people at home. I don’t want to bring anything back home with me."
Also Thursday, the Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO filed an OSHA complaint against the legislative leadership for their “reckless disregard for the safety” of people who work and visit the Capitol.
“It appears they do not really care about the safety and well-being of everyone that comes into the Capitol,” Charlie Wishman, Iowa Federation president, said about the lack of a mask mandate.
Some state legislatures have enacted mandatory mask policies or have delayed their sessions because of COVID-19.
SENATE ALLOWS REMOTE
GOP leaders said they hadn’t seen the complaint but stood by the protocols in place.
“The process we have in the Senate is working,” Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, said.
Unlike House members, senators are allowed to participate virtually in legislative meetings and work in the chamber when needed, but otherwise can work from their office or home. “We just have to continue to monitor,” Whitver said.
"Why don’t we have the do the same as the Senate?" McConkey asked. "We have twice the members. Twice the chance for exposure."
Although the House has rules that cover lawmakers’ attire, for example, Grassley questioned whether a mask mandate would be enforceable.
“What would the recourse be?” he said. “Would they expect the state patrol to come in and remove a member of the public or a member of the caucus?”
If a member is not properly attired, he said, they would not be removed but would not be recognized to speak on the House floor.
In seeking the rules changes, Democrats pointed out that several government agencies, such as the Transportation Commission, conduct virtual meetings — including voting.
The Legislature’s Administrative Rules Committee and the Legislative Council conducted meetings and voted remotely during the time between the 2020 session and the current session.
Courts are conducting virtual hearings, and businesses also have changed their procedures to allow people to work remotely to limit the spread of COVID-19, they said.
A rule was changed to extend the time for representatives to cast their votes from 10 minutes to 20 minutes. Meyer sought to extend it to 30 minutes to allow people to travel to the Capitol if they chose to work from a remote location.
— Nonpareil News Editor Mike Brownlee contributed to this report.