The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Q&A | U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst speaks on FAFSA, bid for No. 3 spot in Senate leadership

In her office at the nation’s capital, Ernst discussed her advocacy for accountability on the rollout of the FAFSA form, the southern border, the TikTok bill, and her bid for Senate leadership.
Cody Blissett
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst answers questions during an interview at the Russel Senate Office Building in Washington D.C. on Wednesday, April 10, 2024.

WASHINGTON — Sitting down with The Daily Iowan Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, spoke about her thoughts and advocacy on the rollout of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, her support for the current version of the TikTok bill, her views on the southern border, and why she decided to make a bid for the No. 3 seat in Senate Republican Leadership. 

The Daily Iowan: We wanted to talk a little about your advocacy on the FAFSA form. You were one of dozens of senators to sign on to a letter to ask the GAO to investigate the rollout. How do you feel about the rollout?

Joni Ernst: It was a disaster. The rollout by the Department of Education was not thoughtfully done.

So many of the students were running into issues when trying to compile information for the financial statements as well as when they were even just getting online and trying to enter the data. We heard from a number of them where they would just be booted out of the system. 

It was really difficult for them to get any answers about why this was happening. They had questions about the form itself. And for example, the example we’ve been using is what is an investment farm all these years I’ve worked in agriculture, and I have never ever heard that term. 

So my team went back to the Department of Education. It was a dozen pieces of correspondence emails that we had back and forth between the Department of Education. They couldn’t even explain to us what an investment farm was. 

So this is what we’re dealing with. And all that has done is really hurt individuals that need financial aid from the federal government. And there are many, many young people that we’ve talked to that are considering a gap year because they don’t believe they’ll be able to afford college. And this is a real setback. 

So the Department of Education has a lot to answer for and if we see these young people that are deserving, take that gap year and then don’t actually follow through and end up going to school. That is an incredible loss for us.

You’ve obviously advocated a lot on the farm aspect of it. What are some solutions that you’d like to see come forward with the asset question for the farms? 

It needs to go back to the way it was before. You’re not going to sell your farm to pay for college. I mean, that is ludicrous. It impacts other types of small businesses as well. 

So if you have someone who runs a mom-and-pop grocery store in a little town of 700, you’re not going to sell the store to pay for college. 

That makes no sense. So it does need to return to what it was before. So there are going to be individuals that are asset rich, but cash poor and we need to make sure that they have the same opportunity to go to school.

The House passed the TikTok bill a while back and it is currently waiting for Senate approval. Do you support the bill?

I do support the bill, I’m leaning that direction, my team and I will — if it comes up — we will have to sit down and do a much more thorough review of it. But at this point, yes, I’m leaning that direction. 

I want to know all the specifics about it, but it does sound like it’s more of a divestment bill, not an outright ban. 

So simply what the house was saying was that you divest — you sell any Chinese interests in TikTok have American ownership and then we will see. I think it’s a better way to go than just an outright ban.

Have you heard any opinions from Iowans on the bill?

I believe not as much as you would think. I mean, some people have reached out I know it was a really hotbed of activity in the house. We had a few calls very early on, but honestly, the calls that I see coming and I get my call sheet every night in different topics. This has not been a big one in this office. 

A lot of lawmakers have had concerns about the security of the app and the data. Do you feel the same way? 

Absolutely. I do. And if you have the opportunity to visit with folks that are on the Intel Committee, they will lay it out quite specifically for you that this is a backdoor for the Chinese to gather information.

Another switch in topic, is the U.S.-Mexico border. You’ve advocated for Sarah’s Law as part of the solution to the situation that’s been resulting from the border. Why did you introduce that?

Because Sarah Root was a young woman who was killed in the Bellevue, Nebraska, area. She was a native of Council Bluffs. She graduated that very same day she was killed with a 4.0 GPA graduated from college, and on her way home that evening was struck and killed by an illegal migrant that was way over the alcohol blood alcohol limits and he was drag racing on the street when he struck her. 

So that is the reason. She is an Iowan. She was a bright young woman who had her entire future ahead of her and she was struck and killed by someone — first who should not have been here — But second, the reason, and we can debate people that are here illegally all day and night, but the problem was they did not detain the individual. 

They allowed him to bond out. He was probably out of the country before she was even laid into her grave. He has never been seen again. This was eight years ago that this happened. 

So ICE chose not to detain him, even though he had killed an American. They chose to let him bond out and her family will likely never ever see justice.

How does Sarah’s Law fit into what you view as a solution to the southern border? And do you have any other reforms that you’d like to see with legal immigration and asylum? 

Overall, it’s not going to be a solution for the southern border issue. But it does hold people that are here illegally in the United States accountable for killing or seriously bodily injuring another person.

I mean, we could say that Americans should be held accountable. Why shouldn’t people that are here illegally be held accountable as well? 

So it’s not going to be a solution for the border. But it is a solution for some of the repercussions that we see that go along with having people here illegally in the country.

The border has been a bit of a flashpoint; what are some of your reactions to what’s happening at the southern border?

It’s outrageous, what we see happening, and we saw a peek at 302,000 people crossing the border in December. This should not happen. 

During the Trump administration, the former Homeland Security Director Jeh Johnson — who I do know, I’ve worked with him on issues before — Jeh Johnson served in the Obama administration when President Trump had 2-3,000 people illegally crossing the border per month. Jay Johnson said that this was a catastrophe. This was a disaster. 2-3,000 people, we would be grateful to say 2-3,000 people, but now all of a sudden people on the other side of the aisle, now that we’ve hit 302,000 in one month, they are silent on the issue. 

No longer is it a disaster, a catastrophe, they just are silent about it. We see towns and communities that are over capacity. They cannot afford to house these migrants. They can’t afford to care for them. 

If you look at the huge human issue behind all of this, people need to be cared for. We cannot physically do it. With that many people coming into the country: our shelters are not set for this, our food pantries are nets not set for this, our hospitals are not set for this. 

So they should not be coming into a country where we cannot support them. So bottom line, they need to stay put, if they truly do meet asylum standards. They can apply for asylum in their home country, they can apply for asylum in a neutral third country.

On that note, are there more specific reforms that you’d like to see to the asylum or immigration process? 

It needs to be a much higher threshold and what James Lankford was working on with his Democratic counterparts in the border bill that went by the wayside. They did develop a higher standard for asylum. 

And basically, you would have to prove that you are being persecuted by your government and that you did not have a means to escape your government and the target. So I guess I would fall back on that as a starting point.

Switching topics again, we wanted to talk a little bit about your bid for leadership and the Senate Republican Conference. You told Politico that you plan to make the bid; tell us a bit about why you decided to take a step up. 

I do believe in supporting my conference. I think it’s really important that if you want to have a voice, you need to have a seat at the table, right?

So I currently serve as the No. 4 and I am the Republican policy chair for the Republican policy committee. This would be another opportunity, moving up into the No. 3, to have an even greater voice for the conference and really set the stage for some of our goals and objectives. 

I feel that I bring our conference together. But I also believe in having an opportunity for many other views within the conference. If you look at Republicans today, we have very divergent views on so many different issues. 

But what I want to do is bring people together on the areas that are important to us and an area where we all come together. The border would be an issue that we all believe we need to make changes at the border. So how do we bring people together? 

So again, just a greater voice for the conference. The No. 3 position is the communications. It really is the communications position. And I feel that I can communicate on a number of different issues for the conference, whether it is on the issue of abortion and pro-life issues or whether it goes to military readiness, whether it’s the economy.

I feel that I can talk to each of those areas and bring the conference’s voice to a different level. But I’m really excited about it and selfishly, I will admit that it’s a greater opportunity for Iowa as well. And that is really important to me is that Iowa has a voice on the national stage. And that’s something that we should all really want. Is for Iowa to have an oversized role in the way decisions are made in Washington, D.C.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced while back that he was stepping down, over concerns partially of not being able to unite the conference because he has differing views on foreign policy. You talk a lot about foreign policy, serving on the Armed Services Committee and other committees, how do you feel that you could unite the conference with so many different views on foreign policy?

Well, I will never shrink away from what I see as probably the No. 1 priority for our nation, and that’s national security. Hand in hand with that comes foreign policy, and working with partner nations allies, friends all around the globe. 

So I’m never going to shrink back from that. But what I can do is work with members of my party that have divergent views and find a way to bring people together. So as we look at the supplemental bill, some of the things that I have been working on since the Ukrainian war started is finding ways where we can make sure that we are honoring our commitment to taxpayers by making sure their dollars are spent wisely, but also providing a means to end the war for the Ukrainians.

And one of those ways was by taking a look at the really frivolous spending that is included in USAID. USAID through the State Department does good work when the dollars are focused in the right manner. 

There are a lot of dollars that are wrapped up into contracts through the State Department that go to pay for very fancy offices in Paris, France, go for expensive meals for dignitaries. That’s not providing aid to Ukrainians. It’s not providing you know, the right types of goods and services to the people that need it. So scaling back on what we spend for those types of expenditures. That makes sense to a lot of Republicans. 

So let’s find a way to come together on those issues and still provide support militarily for Ukrainians. So there are ways to do it, but you just have to look from every possible angle and then propose those solutions to the conference. But I know I can do this, and I’m excited. I’m just really glad to have the opportunity. 

More to Discover
About the Contributors
Liam Halawith
Liam Halawith, Politics Editor
Liam Halawith is a third-year student at the University of Iowa studying Journalism and Mass Communication and minoring in Public Policy. Before his role as Politics Editor Liam was a politics reporter for the DI. Outside of the DI Liam has interned at the Cedar Rapids Gazette and the Southeast Iowa Union. This is his second year working for the DI.
Cody Blissett
Cody Blissett, Visuals Editor
Cody Blissett is a visual editor at The Daily Iowan. He is a third year student at the University of Iowa studying cinema and screenwriting. This is his first year working for The Daily Iowan.