Iowa's senior Senator has more than a half century of public service under his belt and the challenges in Washington and back here in Iowa are many. We sit down Senator Charles Grassley on this edition of Iowa Press.

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For decades, Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, May 11 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.  


Yepsen: Nearly 500 days into full republican control of the Senate, House and Presidency, the machinery of government is pivoting to another midterm election. And countless issues remain in the halls of Congress. Joining us today is Iowa's senior Senator Charles Grassley, now in his seventh six-year term in the U.S. Senate. Senator Grassley, welcome back to Iowa Press. It's good to see you.

Grassley: I'm always glad to come here to be with you. And the first time with you.

Yepsen: We're glad to have you.

Grassley: You aren't Dean.


Yepsen: Also joining the conversation are political reporters Kay Henderson of Radio Iowa and Erin Murphy of Lee Enterprises.

Henderson: Senator, you ruffled a few feathers this week by suggesting that any Supreme Court Justice who intends to retire soon should tell you immediately. Why did you do that?

Grassley: Because I was asked about it. I could comment on a hundred things but usually I'm always answering people like you and the question was asked. And it may have been read I think by Washington people, not by your question, that I was advocating that. No, I'm not telling any Supreme Court Justice what they should do. But there is rumors last year and this year that somebody might be retiring. And so I'm trying to suggest to them the machinery of government. If you want this President to replace it and you want a republican Senate to look at you, you ought to have done it yesterday because it takes about 60 days from the time the President selects somebody, for our staff and the democrats' staff, to go through all of the opinions some other nominee has written and to vet them and then you have to have a hearing, that is a week. And then you have to let it lay over for two weeks and then you vote on it and then it goes to the floor. And so it takes about 70 or 80 days. So think in terms of between now and November 6th, it needs to be done.

Murphy: So all that calculus you just talked about and by using the nuclear option last year to confirm Justice Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, have republicans created a situation where any nomination to the Supreme Court is basically a race against an election? And does that politicize the process more than you're comfortable with?

Grassley: Absolutely not. I'm just speaking about the realities of elections and elections have consequences and you can't know for certain what's going to happen in an election. I don't predict by my statement on the process that we're going to have a democrat Senate. I don't think so. But you've got to live with the realities of it. But it kind of fits in with what the historical pattern is that unless somebody dies, which is unpredictable and you act according to that act of God, then you go by when does it usually happen. And during April to June period of time is generally when Supreme Court Justices have said they're going to retire.

Henderson: Senator, do you think President Trump agrees that if there is a Supreme Court vacancy in '19 or '20 that it shouldn't be filled because people should wait for the next President to be elected?

Grassley: Yeah, it would be the one year of the '20 if you want to follow the pattern of the Biden Rule and I'd follow that. That would be just 12 months or let's say the 10 months before the election of 2020. No, he wouldn't agree with that.

Henderson: Would Mitch McConnell agree with that?

Grassley: No, he would not agree with it.

Henderson: How do you think history will treat you? I remember reading in history books when I was in school about FDR trying to stack the court. How do you think history will write this chapter 30 years from now about the Merrick Garland nomination and your role in making sure that he didn't get a hearing?

Grassley: Well, I don't know what history will do and I don't care what history will do. I'm just following what was established by the Biden Rule of 1986 and again emphasized by him in '92 and re-emphasized by both Reid and Schumer in the Bush administration. That's all. They set the pattern, I didn't set the pattern. But it was very legitimate that you can't have one rule for democrat presidents and another rule for republican presidents.

Murphy: Senator, we wanted to ask you about a special investigation into Russian meddling in the election. You had some, we saw some members of the administration this week, including Vice President Pence, say that he'd like to see that wrapped up sooner than later. Do you agree with that? Or are you willing to give the special counsel the space he feels he needs to complete this investigation?

Grassley: I would want to have Mueller to have the space he needs but on the other hand we've been at it for a year, or if you want to go back to when the FBI started before Mueller then a year and a half, two years. Sometime you hope it ends and I would like to agree with Pence but it has gone on long enough. It ought to be close to being ended. But if that is interpreted that we ought to shut it down regardless of whether it is ended or not then I'd say no. This process ought to play out.

Murphy: And you introduced legislation, I should say your committee ran legislation that would protect him. Leader McConnell said that he isn't interested in seeing a floor vote on that, it would probably be fairly unlikely that the President would sign that. Why did you have a committee vote on that nonetheless?

Grassley: Well, I could probably tell Senator McConnell probably about five bills I'd like to see him bring up that come out of my committee. But the reason that McConnell has what he has to do as leader, he sets the agenda for the Senate floor, I set the agenda for my committee and in this particular instance those bills were introduced last fall, a republican bill, a democrat bill, we had a hearing at that time and to looking into the situation. So I said to people last fall, those sponsors, I'm not going to bring the bill up, I'm not going to bring two bills up. We're not going to argue about this in a partisan way because the two years of '15 and '16 I had 31 bills come out of committee, every one of them was bipartisan and 18 of them got to a democrat president. So I'm pretty patterned to do things in a bipartisan way if you can do them in a bipartisan way, at least on legislations. Well, the bottom line of it is I didn't know that they'd get together but they got together and if they got together I wanted to keep my word.

Murphy: And you supported that bill? You voted in support of it?

Grassley: Yes I did.

Murphy: Do you think this special counsel deserves that level of protection to be able to do his job?

Grassley: There's two reasons. One, number one, what you said about the protection. Number two, it has a great deal to do with the constitutional role of Congress as oversight and I wanted to protect that.

Yepsen: Senator, I want to switch gears closer to home. Trade. Do you expect there to be a trade war?

Grassley: No. I believe that this President is doing something that a lot of other presidents never thought about doing probably because they came from politics or from government, I mean from the military, to be President of the United States. We have a business person the first time in the history of the country to be President. I think he brings a whole new approach. I think as you know in business he was a deal maker. I think he thinks that we can get a better deal for our agriculture services and manufacturing. I think that he thinks that you're going to have to negotiate in a way of strength. I think he believes in brinksmanship. He brings you to the brink. If he isn't successful it's going to be bad for Iowa agriculture. But if he is successful, and I see some light at the end of the tunnel, then I think we're going to have better agreements. China says cars will come in now at 2.5% tariff instead of 25%. Korea taking more cars. And we're going to have a NAFTA agreement here. And we wouldn't have done that if this President hadn't brought these countries to the brink. We wouldn't have the Chinese Vice Premier for Economics coming over here to negotiate with us, following our cabinet people going over there a week ago.

Yepsen: What do you say though, Senator, to an Iowa soybean farmer or a Kansas sorghum grower who sees the prices falling out, the bottom on their crops? This is, what you're talking about has, I understand the trade strategy, but there are a lot of people in agriculture who are hurting as a result of this.

Grassley: I ought to make very clear to you, because I didn't make it clear in what I've already said, I am very nervous about this approach. I see a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel. Now maybe two months from now you'll see me and that light is out. But right now I see some hope. I see it in the NAFTA agreement not being a concern to the same people it was 12 months ago. I see the President of China saying we're going to reduce tariffs on cars. I see some progress made of our four cabinet people going over there last week. I see it is followed up by their Premier coming to Washington next week. That would have never happened if Hillary Clinton had been elected President.

Murphy: Senator Grassley, we wanted to ask you about the Farm Bill. Work will begin on that soon. Are we going to see a Farm Bill? And will Iowa farmers like what's in it?

Grassley: I think they'll like what's in it more than what is in the House bill. The House bill is very detrimental to Midwestern agriculture. I better not say detrimental because it doesn't do harm to Midwestern agriculture, but what it does is it guarantees rice, cotton and peanuts profitability and it doesn't do that for corn and soybeans. So I just had this discussion yesterday with Roberts as he was talking to us individually --

Henderson: And Pat Roberts is from Kansas, he's the Senator that is the Chair of the Committee. You're on the Ag Committee too. In case people didn't know.

Grassley: Okay, anyway, we're going to get a bill within the next month and it's going to be a bipartisan bill.

Murphy: Speaking of the House bill, there is a debate brewing once again on food assistance programs and over work requirements. Do you feel there should be work requirements for people on food assistance programs? And how do you see that debate playing out once again here?

Grassley: Yes, but it sounds like all this debate means that you want to be punitive to people that are on food stamps or if you want work requirements in Medicaid or any other support program. It comes from the standpoint that we ought to be helping people and be compassionate and fair to people that have needs but it ought to be considered a temporary thing and we ought to be helping people work their way out of poverty. And if you're never in the world of work you're never going to get out of poverty because you've got to be in the world of work to work your way up. And so I believe that you help people get into the world of work and you ought to give them encouragement getting in the world of work. Now I can do more for people that are in poverty but I'm just going to make them more secure in their poverty and I don't think you're doing anything for anybody when you just make them more secure in their poverty because they're always going to be in poverty. And if you're going to be compassionate you've got to have people get out of it, help people get out of poverty.

Yepsen: Kay?

Henderson: This past week you had a meeting about ethanol at the White House. Do you trust EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to follow through on the availability of E15?

Grassley: On that point, yes.

Henderson: You do trust him?

Grassley: Yes, but only, that's the only part of it that I trust. Now, I hope, in other words, I'm going to reserve judgment because what do other things that we talked about that they might be doing that will detract from E15 twelve months out of the year.

Yepsen: Such as? What are they doing?

Grassley: Oh, put the RIN certificates on exports. If that is not done with other things that are going to encourage production what we get with the left hand is taken away with the right hand.

Henderson: Have you about had it with Scott Pruitt?

Grassley: On ethanol, yes. Everything else he has done, no, except the ethics questions and I'm going to wait until we get done with the investigation on the ethics questions. But everything else like following the Supreme Court ruling to repeal the Clean Power rules, to do away with Waters of the U.S., yes, and to do away with this process of sue to settle where you avoid the requirements of the Administrative Procedures Act so you get regulations by a scheme between bureaucrats and EPA and other people that have interests that are against economic job creation and then leave the people out of it when you have had a right to get your voice heard through the Administrative Procedures Act. He's doing away with it.

Henderson: Do you think he is ethically challenged?

Grassley: I would think that a person that came from state government where you don't have all of the attributes of playing with the people's money like you do in Washington, D.C., I would think that he would come in there with a very conservative approach. I don't see it with some of the things he has done.

Murphy: Senator, I want to shift gears to a little foreign policy here. Correct me if I'm wrong, you support the President's decision to withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal, is that correct?

Grassley: That is right but with my hope that that will be modified according to what the President has asked and work with Great Britain, France and Germany to modify it from the standpoint that they are not following the spirit of the agreement on their testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles and that they aren't following the spirit on the inspections that go on and then that is backed up by what Netanyahu made public, mountains of documents that for years they have been trying to develop nuclear capability and they have said they have never wanted to do that. We've got proof now they do.

Murphy: So how does this make the U.S. safer, the President's actions?

Grassley: Well, the answer to that is the Obama agreement with Iran didn't make America any safer because they're still going to have nuclear capability.

Henderson: Speaking of nuclear capability, the President is heading to a summit with North Korea's leader. Do you think that U.S. troops should withdraw ultimately from South Korea? Do you think the U.S. is overcommitted globally? And do you think Trump is on the right track here?

Grassley: Troops should not be withdrawn until you get a peace agreement between North and South Korea. The United States and China will probably be a party to that. But I think eventually if you have peace. Would we have troops in Europe now if we weren't fearful of Russia once again as they're doing in Ukraine, as they're threatening the Baltics, as what they're doing in the Crimea and the fact that Putin is trying to re-establish the Soviet Union, we wouldn't have troops there. And so if we can maintain peace without troops in South Korea of course they should not be there. They ought to go places where they're needed.

Henderson: Do you think President Trump should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize?

Grassley: I'll leave that up to the Swedes.


Yepsen: Senator, let's switch gears to more political questions. You have always been known as a pretty frugal person. You don't even pay for lunch in the Senate republican caucus, you just eat the free crackers. Yet at the same time we see the republicans in Congress and the White House pass a budget bill and tax bill that projects into huge national deficits in the future. Senator, what has happened to the Republican Party?

Grassley: The spending bill, you're right, I voted against it March 23rd. On the tax bill you're wrong because it doesn't take into consideration that you only have to have the economy grow four-tenths of a percent more than it would otherwise be grown to make up the trillion dollars. So we passed the tax bill. That's going to increase employment. It's going to guarantee 3% economic growth compared to 8 years of an average of one and four-tenths percent of economic growth under Obama and you're never going to ever pay off the national debt with one and four-tenths percent national growth. You can do it with 3% national growth as long as you have spending restrictions connected with it.

Yepsen: Senator, though, what about the next recession? Things are going really good in the economy now. But we'll likely have another recession. We haven't repealed the business cycle. What tools do the Federal Reserve, does the administration have to get us out of the next recession if you've got this huge debt? Can they put more money, can they borrow more money?

Grassley: The Federal Reserve has screwed that up over a period of the eight years of the Obama administration by keeping interest rates practically at zero. And so they have put themselves in a position that the best tools that they have and the non-political tools they have, because remember congressional tools are politically oriented, the Fed is non-political. But they, through their bad policies by keeping interest rates so low, they took away the best tool to get us out of a recession if we get into one.

Henderson: Senator, let me ask you a politically oriented question. Will you run for another term in the U.S. Senate?

Grassley: Ask me in 2020.

Yepsen: All right, as it is, Senator --

Grassley: Or 2021 I better say.

Henderson: Okay.

Yepsen: You'll be up in 2022. You, if republicans retain control of the Senate in this election, and it appears likely that they will, you may even add seats, you will become the ranking republican, you'll become the senior republican, it makes you President Pro Tem in the Senate. That puts you in a line of succession to the presidency right after the Vice President. How do you feel about that?

Grassley: Who would want to be President of the United States if the President, the Vice President and the Speaker of the House all were killed? Would I want to be President of the United States in that environment? The answer is I'd have to do it if that happened but that wouldn't be a very good thing to do. Now, listen, I'm going to be Senator from Iowa, forget about me being President Pro Tem and having a little bigger office. That's nothing. I've got to represent the people of Iowa and just ignore the fact that I'm President Pro Tem.

Murphy: Senator, you've been through a few elections. You're not on the ballot this year but I'm sure you're paying attention. Is there a blue wave coming that a lot of people are predicting? Do you see trouble for your party in this fall's midterm election?

Grassley: On the generic ballot where republicans are only three points behind the democrats that usually means that we're going to maintain the status quo.

Henderson: Senator, there was an immigration raid in Mount Pleasant this past week. There was an immigration raid in Postville ten years ago. The laws about immigration are the same as they were back then. What, if anything, will ever prompt Congress to take action on immigration?

Grassley: We were prompted to take action September the 5th when the President said that he was not going to allow the unconstitutional action that Obama did on DACA and carried forward, leave it up to Congress. We had a debate for a week on DACA. I introduced a bill that would legalize DACA. It would have them a path to citizenship after 12 years. It would have provided money for the wall, I don't mean a 2,300 mile wall, but border security. It would have provided border security. And if we provided border security and we can prove to the American people, unlike we haven't been able to prove to them over the last 20 years that we're going to control the border, we'll get comprehensive immigration. But in the meantime we'll help people that were here maybe technically illegal. But when you come here in diapers with your parents I'm not going to challenge the kids that they're illegal. Their parents violated our laws by coming here without papers. So I think it's perfectly legitimate to put them in a position of legality and give them a path to citizenship.

Yepsen: Senator, we've got just a minute left. I want to ask you about sentencing reform. You thought you could try to work out a deal with democrats to create, change the way we sentence people to prison.

Grassley: We did work it out. The Durbin-Grassley bill is that perfect compromise.

Yepsen: Where does it stand?

Grassley: It stands that this was one of the five bills that got out of committee bipartisan 16 to 5. McConnell doesn't like it. So I'm hoping that we get an opportunity to get it up because we will have more than enough votes to get it passed and over the filibuster. But he thinks it is being soft on crime. Listen, you can be for sentencing reform and not soft on crime and this is exactly one year ago about now I had this same conversation with Sessions. He comes to my office to beg me to do something and say I've got something I want to bring up with you. You can be tough on crime but our bill is not soft on crime. It just admits that there is a lot of unfairness and not compassion with mandatory minimums. I support mandatory minimums but all we're doing is giving the person convicted another bite at the apple to go back before the judge and maybe instead of a 20 years sentence he can get it reduced to 10 and it brings some fairness to the system. And they ought to recognize that you can be tough on crime and you can still be fair and compassionate.

Yepsen: Senator, I'm out of time. We've got to leave it there.

Grassley: I'm sorry you are.

Yepsen: Thanks for being with us. Looking forward to having you back.

Grassley: Thank you.

Yepsen: And thank you for joining us. We'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press next week at our regular times. But a special political programming note, Iowa PBS will bring you live coverage of our 2018 Iowa Democratic Gubernatorial Debate from our studios here in Johnston. The Governor's Debate this Wednesday, May 16th at 7p.m. on statewide Iowa PBS and online at iptv.org. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.             

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