Members of Iowa’s congressional delegation hope to build on Trump-era policies

In interviews with The Daily Iowan, Iowa’s congressional delegation said they hope to build on Trump-era policies and find common ground with the Democratic Congress.

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Katie Goodale/The Daily Iowan

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, sits down for an interview with The Daily Iowan on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2020. Only a day after the inauguration of President Joe Biden, Ernst discussed upcoming work and the possible impeachment of former President Donald Trump.

Julia Shanahan, Politics Editor


Members of Iowa’s mostly Republican congressional delegation say they want to continue to build on Trump-era policies in the new Biden-Harris administration while moving past the former president’s divisive rhetoric.

Iowa’s Republican senators, in the majority for the last four years, will now have to work with a Democratic Congress and presidential administration.

Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, both named agriculture, tax cuts, and criminal justice reform as areas they hope to find common ground with the Democratic majority. Both senators named the First Step Act, a criminal-justice law signed by Trump in 2018, as a bipartisan piece of legislation they hope to build off of in the new Congress. 

Grassley sponsored the First Step Act, along with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Grassley said this bill was necessary in correcting some injustices brought forth by the 1994 crime bill.

“At the time Durbin and I were working on that bill, we were up against a majority of the Republican caucus being against what we tried to do, and if the president hadn’t been for it, I wouldn’t have been able to overcome McConnell’s opposition to it,” Grassley said of then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel, R-Ky. “And you know, in the end, McConnell even voted for it and it passed 87 to 12.”

The First Step Act aimed to reduce prison populations, reduce mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses, and expand rehabilitation efforts. Ernst said she is currently working with U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., on a bill that would allow people convicted of minor drug offenses greater opportunity for work.

Ernst said it’s unfortunate that a lot of Trump-era policies in these areas were lost in his divisive and politically incorrect language.

“There were some policies that actually were very, very helpful to certain groups and demographics across the United States, but all of that is getting lost — again, just poor judgment, poor use of words,” Ernst said.

While Trump has made statements in opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement and stoked nativist resentment toward immigrants, Ernst said people forget that Trump was “the first president” to give permanent funding to historically Black colleges and universities and lowered the unemployment rate for women and people of color.

PolitiFact found that the funding allocated to HBCU’s in a 2019 funding bill is similar to the funding under former President Barack Obama, making Trump’s October 2020 claim that he “saved” HBCUs mostly false. The report also said that it’s unclear how involved Trump was in the 2019 FUTURE Act before he signed the legislation.

Before the pandemic, unemployment among African Americans did reach a record low of 5.4 percent in August 2019, but according to a fact check from Politico, this number is a result of an economy that was already growing before Trump took office. During the pandemic in April of 2020, Black unemployment reached 14.7 percent — the highest since the Great Depression — and has since declined to 12.1 percent while white unemployment rates have been nearly cut in half.

President Joe Biden was inaugurated on Jan. 20 and rang in a message of unity and prevailing democracy in the weeks after a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, which led to the second impeachment of former President Donald Trump for incitement of insurrection.

Listen: On the Record special edition: Talking with Iowa’s congressional delegation

Grassley said that if Biden fulfills his promises of uniting the country, then there shouldn’t be lasting repercussions of Trump’s divisive rhetoric.

“Trump is history,” Grassley said. “…I think as long as [Biden] continues to do what he said he’s going to do, then any division that you can put squarely on the shoulders of President Trump, and I say those are more by words than they are by policy, then I think you’ll see that unification come about.”

Trump won Iowa in both 2016 and 2020 by wide margins. U.S. Reps. Mariannette Miller-Meeks and Ashley Hinson flipped two of Iowa’s four congressional districts, leaving Cindy Axne as the lone Democratic representative. Ernst beat out Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield. 

Agriculture

Trump often touted his achievements for the agriculture sector during campaign stops through Iowa, like negotiating a Phase 1 trade agreement with China and supporting a rise in farm income nationwide.

Ernst said she wants to see the Biden administration expand trade opportunities and push U.S. agricultural products in other countries around the world. Because of rocky trade negotiations throughout Trump’s term, farmers have seen large amounts of federal assistance, and in 2019, federal aid accounted for a quarter of farmer’s net income.

“I think it comes back to our farmers and the farmers that I visit with all over the state of Iowa, you know, they always say trade, not aid,” Ernst said.

Grassley said he hopes to work with the Biden administration on helping independent pork producers by strengthening antitrust laws and continue on work Trump did to expand biofuels. 

In May 2019, Trump approved the use of year-round E-15 — gasoline with higher blends of ethanol — which was good news for corn growers in Iowa. The use of E-15 was originally banned in the summer.

“If you’re from Iowa or even if you aren’t from Iowa, you know that agriculture and biofuels is a very big thing for the state. And that I would hope that we would be able to work together on ethanol and biodiesel and the 43,000 jobs that are connected with that,” Grassley said.

Axne, who is on the House Agriculture Committee, said she’s been working with the House task force on climate to put together a policy recommendations with the help of farmers on how they can farm more sustainably.

Hinson said she wants to look at issues like water quality, but said she doesn’t think there is going to be a lot of agreement on some proposed solutions, like eliminating the combustion engine.

“I think absolutely addressing [climate change] is important, but I need to make sure that we’re also being thoughtful in engaging the key players and stakeholders and not just mandating,” Hinson said. “I think that’s where the government fails on a regular basis, is when they don’t take into consideration the actual impact. And a one size fits all policy is not always the answer.” 

COVID-19 stimulus package

Before Trump left office, he put pressure on Congress to approve another COVID-19 stimulus package that includes $2,000 direct payments to Americans. The $900 billion package that Congress approved and Trump signed only included $600 direct payments, and Biden has since pledged to advocate for another round of direct payments.

Axne, Iowa’s lone Democratic representative, said Congress needs to approve another stimulus bill because, she said, food banks are overloaded, some people are only working part-time, and some people haven’t applied for unemployment. 

“To me this is a no brainer, and it’s really unfortunate that my colleagues can’t see that people are suffering in our own backyard,” Axne said.

She said passing more relief is a priority this year, and she’s working on allocating $100 million to support broadband capabilities nationwide. She also listed support for schools reopening and the health care industry.

Miller-Meeks and Hinson both said they think it’s too soon to start thinking about another round of direct payments when we haven’t seen the full economic effects of the last stimulus package. 

“I don’t want to hamper our economic recovery by going too big of a package at the wrong time,” Miller-Meeks said.

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