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Editorial: Rejection of Lang by Iowa Senate smacks of political retribution

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | APRIL 10, 2013 5:00 AM

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The Iowa Senate on Monday failed to confirm two of Gov. Terry Branstad’s nominees for the state Board of Regents — the body that oversees the state’s public universities.

Republicans Robert Cramer and Craig Lang — whose term as the president of the Board of Regents ends on April 30 — failed to garner the two-thirds majority needed for confirmation in the Democrat-majority Senate. A third nominee, Subhash Sahai, who has made campaign contributions to Democrats, was confirmed.

While the Daily Iowan Editorial Board believes the Senate was justified in its decision to deny Cramer’s confirmation, its failure to reappoint Lang was poorly justified and smacked of political retribution.

Cramer, a politically active construction-company owner, met serious opposition in the Senate, largely because of his social conservatism.

Just prior to Monday’s vote, Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, recommended that his colleagues vote to deny confirmation because of Cramer’s stated opposition to policy advancing LGBT rights and his record on academic freedom when he served on the Johnston School Board.

Though the Republican counterargument — that Cramer’s construction expertise would have been valuable as the regent universities begin approximately $1.3 billion worth of construction projects — is valid, we believe that the Democratic majority was justified in its decision to reject Cramer.

The case against Lang, however, was less convincing.

In his recommendation against Lang’s confirmation, Quirmbach argued that Lang had not demonstrated a commitment to academic freedom as the regent president, but his case was rather flimsy. Quirmbach cited comments Lang had made about the need for Iowa State University to “speak with a single voice” on agriculture as evidence that Lang does not value academic debate.

Hardly damning evidence, to say the least.

The Senate Republicans responded by touting Lang’s leadership through two searches for new presidents at the regent schools, his handling of statewide budget cuts for higher education, and his commitment to improving transparency at Iowa’s public universities.

Unfortunately for all parties involved, the confirmation vote may have been about something other than his performance.

Earlier this year, Lang drew criticism after Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he would not donate 30 years’ worth of his papers to the Harkin Institute at Iowa State. Harkin believed that some of academic guidelines fought for by Lang limited the potential scope of the institute’s research.

It is likely that Lang’s rejection by the Senate Democrats was, at least in part, an act of political retribution in response to his spat with Harkin, not the end result of a careful consideration of Lang’s record as the leader of the regents.

In the confirmation process, the Senate has a duty to work with the governor without simply acting as a rubber stamp. This means the Senate is obligated to adequately weigh each candidate on her or his merits and make its decision independently of the governor’s wishes. In the case of Cramer, the senators made a perfectly acceptable decision that was well-justified — Cramer’s values and vision did not align with those of the majority.

In the case of Lang, however, it seems that politics prevailed over careful consideration and collegiality. We’re hesitant to label this episode “Washington, D.C.-style” politics, as Branstad’s office has, but the Senate Democrats should be careful about introducing partisan animosity into Iowa’s confirmation process.

As we’ve seen in Washington, no good can come of that.


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