As you may have heard, there have been at least four cases of COVID at the state Capitol over the past weeks (and probably quite a few more that are not being reported).

On Saturday we learned that a legislator who sits in my row tested positive for COVID; I was tested on Monday and tested negative but my legislative clerk, who sits right next to me, was tested yesterday and unfortunately tested positive. He’s doing OK, but definitely feeling the effects of the virus. Since I was around my clerk quite a bit on Sunday and Monday, and since a few of those hours were spent inside a car with rolled up windows, I could definitely be infected with the virus and have been advised to quarantine, and out of an abundance of caution I’ve agreed to do so. Hopefully I’ll test negative on Monday and if so, I think I can safely go back to the Capitol on Tuesday. Fingers crossed.

This is very frustrating because obviously I want to be at the Capitol, discussing and debating and voting on the bills that are (very quickly) moving through the House – and right now I can’t, because I could hypothetically kill someone (the Capitol is filled with people in the high-risk category). So until (hopefully) next week, I am doing the best I can to do my job.

For example, this morning I had a subcommittee hearing on HSB167, a bill expanding Iowa’s “Beginning Farmer” program. I reviewed the bill, did my due diligence, and emailed the Republican manager of the bill to let him know that based on my research and input from back home, I supported the bill, and would be attending the subcommittee hearing virtually (via Webex). I listened to the subcommittee hearing and didn’t hear anything to change my mind about the value of the bill, so I let the bill manager know – via a “thumbs up” in the chat box – that I was still a yes on the bill.

But here’s the thing – my “yes” vote on HSB167 won’t be recorded anywhere, because the Republican House Leadership decided early on that representatives who are required to quarantine due to a COVID diagnosis or close exposure to COVID are allowed to virtually attend the subcommittees and committees on which they serve, but are not allowed to ask questions or offer comments on the bills under discussion, and are not allowed to vote virtually. This makes no sense – the Senate does allow their members to virtually participate/vote in their subcommittees/committees and it’s working out just fine. I understand (kind of) and accept being required to be personally present to vote on bills on the House floor, but the purpose of subcommittee and committee hearings are to share input, information and opinions on the bills, so why not let members do so virtually during this national pandemic emergency?

The only rationale I’ve heard for this policy decision to not allow virtual participation is that “If legislators want to talk/vote in subcommittee or committee then they should show up for work, just like all the rest of us are showing up for work, just like all of our front-line workers are showing up for work.” That’s a pretty obnoxious rationale, because it implies that those of us who are complying with CDC guidelines and staying away from the Capitol in order to protect everyone inside the Capitol are, in fact, either overreacting or blowing off work, neither of which is the case for any of us.

So anyhow … this afternoon I have three committee meetings. In each committee we are voting on several bills, and I’ll (virtually) discuss these bills with the other Dems on the committee prior to the meeting, and attend the committees remotely – but I won’t be allowed to vote on any of the bills. And, fyi, those of us attending our committee meetings remotely are being shown, for purposes of attendance, as being “excused” – which means not present. Even though we are present, albeit virtually so. And tomorrow, the House will be debating and voting on several bills on the House floor; luckily all but one are non-controversial bills that will pass unanimously (and the controversial one isn’t all that controversial). I’ll watch the debate, but I won’t be able to vote, and neither will the many other legislators who are either quarantining due to close a COVID diagnosis or close exposure to COVID. There are quite a few of us, and I suspect that there will be more in the days and weeks to come.

And in the meantime, House leadership continues to take the position that there is no need for a mask mandate and/or that they have no way of enforcing a mask mandate. Which is interesting, because yesterday one of the legislators wore jeans on the House floor (nice clean brand-new jeans) and the Speaker refused to allow her to speak during debate on the grounds that she was violating the dress code. She was allowed to vote, which is good, but the point is, the Speaker could obviously apply the same policy to his members that refuse to mask up – i.e., tell them “that’s fine, you can vote, but I’m not going to allow you to participate in the debate until you agree to put on a mask and leave it on.” Of course, then the Speaker would have to wear a mask, which he often declines to do, so no doubt masks will continue to be optional in the Iowa House, which makes it more likely that legislators and legislative staff will be exposed to COVID on the House floor – but at least legislators and Capitol employees won’t be exposed to denim on the House floor.

Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, represents District 98 in the Iowa House of Representatives.

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