The August congressional recess offers legislators a chance to visit with their supervisors, the voting public back home. We'll sit down with Iowa's senior congressional leader, Senator Charles Grassley, on this edition of Iowa Press.

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. 


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, August 16 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.


Yepsen: For Iowa's elected officials in Washington, coming home during an August congressional recess is more complicated than a simple visit to the State Fair. From an ongoing trade war to mass shootings spurring another round of gun control conversations, multiple issues continue to seize national headlines and those issues lead constituents to bring their concerns directly to elected officials like today's guest, Senator Charles Grassley, no stranger to the Iowa Press table. Senator, welcome back.

Grassley: I'm glad to be back, particularly after I just finished my 92 counties out of 99 that I visit every year. So I had 8 town meetings in the last two days. I'm glad to be with you.

Yepsen: Thank you. Across the table, political journalists asking the questions are Erin Murphy, Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises and Kay Henderson is News Director for Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Senator, David mentioned the mass shootings. There have been two this month in El Paso and in Dayton. What in your view will pass the U.S. Senate in terms of background checks, perhaps red flag laws?

Grassley: I assume that those are two issues that Lindsey Graham and democratic Senator Blumenthal are working with the White House on now. Those are the only two things that have been up front as specific identifications, but also the general mental health issue so people that have mental health issues can't get guns to do what a lot of people that are deranged do because there has been a mental health issue with all these. And Senator McConnell said that he expected this to be an issue for debate after we get back after Labor Day.

Henderson: Do you expect the President to be the lead on this or do you expect the U.S. Senate to be independent of whatever the President believes on this issue?

Grassley: I think there's a close working relationship between the leadership of the Senate and the White House on this considering that that's where the negotiations are going on now, not just between republicans and democrats, but also between the Senate and the White House. And I think that there's a feeling that if you're going to do anything in the Second Amendment area that you want to make sure the President is going to sign it.

Henderson: Do you think republicans are too allied with the National Rifle Association?

Grassley: No, I think that what you find is you don't hear the National Rifle Association talk very much about -- at my town meetings you talk about the Second Amendment, it was a discussion at most of my town meetings and both people that want legislation passed as well as people that want to make sure in the process of considering that legislation that it protects the Second Amendment.

Murphy: Senator, you mentioned the mental health issue and the President has as well and others. We've also heard from mental health care advocates who have started to push back on that line of thinking and express concern that tying these shooting events to mental health issues may unfairly demonize people with mental illness who are not violent at all. Do you share that concern?

Grassley: I think it's wrong to demonize people just because of the issue of mental health. As I was growing up it was kind of considered a blight on the family and we were putting people in asylums. We're 50 years past that now. We still need to be sensitive about that issue. And I think they're right in regard to El Paso and Dayton but I don't think they're right in regard to a lot of the shootings that have happened, other mass shootings that have happened, particularly in schools with young people. And now I think that I don't follow the Iowa legislature very closely but I think the Iowa legislature has made a good movement in that direction by having emphasis upon analyzing children before they go to school if there's any mental issues there that we can intervene and prevent some of these things. And I'm also looking at a bill, I've already got this bill introduced, but a bill where the Secret Service has had a program for law enforcement people over a long period of time to teach them how to identify people that may be disturbed and could do those mass shootings. And I want to extend that Secret Service program to educators.

Murphy: You mentioned the asylums and the Iowa legislature. In Iowa the reform has been to move more towards community based care for folks with mental illness. The President within the last day or so has talked about needing to go back to the institution style of treating mental health care, mental illness. Do you agree with that?

Grassley: I don't think that the President would take into consideration the great advances that have been made in pharmaceuticals and other sorts of treatment as well as anything in psychiatry that has us had the possibility of having community based treatment and I would want to continue that community based treatment. But I do think that there is something that ought to be a little easier for people to have treatment rather than just having a lot of people that don't have access to that treatment because maybe of their own independence. I think that if you want to be a humanitarian towards people that have mental illness that sometimes there ought to be some real effort to get people to treatment. And some people in mental health would say, or maybe lawyers would say, that could be a violation of their constitutional rights. But it's different than your institutionalizing people for decades like we used to do for 100 years before 1960.

Henderson: Let's shift to the farm economy. There are waivers being granted by the Environmental Protection Agency, which is reducing the amount of ethanol that is blended in gasoline in this country, some say by as much as 10%. The ethanol industry, particularly the ethanol producers in Iowa, are up in arms. Why isn't President Trump's EPA following through on what the President has promised?

Grassley: They screwed us when we didn't, when they issued 31 waivers compared to less than 10 waivers during all the Obama years, and we thought that was bad. What's really bad isn't a waiver, it's that it is being granted to people that really aren't hardship and that is where it ought to be identified. Like I have told the President on one occasion, I said 18 months ago we started out this division between ethanol and the small refineries and these waivers and I said RIN certificates were 80 cents. Now they're down to 20 cents. So if the problem was 80 cents RIN why is it a problem today? And that is the way I still see it. Now, I didn't get an answer from him when I said that because we were there to talk about other things, but he always brings up ethanol so that I know that he knows about the ethanol issues and he wants to be considered very pro-ethanol and he wants to be considered very pro-farmer. But EPA, as I told Ivanka Trump one time when she came to my office to talk about family leave issues, I said, can I talk to you about something to tell your dad? And I said, he's got somebody in the EPA, in the air quality divisions, that isn't carrying out his policies and you tell him he ought to, he needs to be aware of that. So that is where we are.

Henderson: So where does the buck stop?

Grassley: Well, since Truman, the buck stopped at the Oval Office. But here's what it is, I don't think that we would have even had these six or seven less waivers that were applied for if the President hadn't been in Council Bluffs to talk about E15 12 months out of the year, which was something he had worked on for two years to deliver for the ethanol industry and the corn farmers and then farmers talked to him about these waivers situations, he went back to Washington and told EPA you've got to do something about the waivers. So they do something that has six less waivers out of 38 or 39 and it's a big accomplishment and it's no accomplishment whatsoever. So we've got to go back to the President the same way that we have in the past.

Henderson: The President-elect of the Iowa Pork Producers Association expressed concern that Iowa pork producers are forever losing the China market at a time when China is losing a significant number of its hogs due to African swine fever. As a free trader for your whole life are you concerned about the turn that the Trump administration has taken in regards to trade policy worldwide?

Grassley: As I told the President maybe three months ago when we were down there to talk about trade it was something like this, I said two years ago on tariff issues with China I'd say you were crazy, but now I know we would not have had China at the table negotiating if you hadn't put the tariffs on. And I think that is the way farmers feel because they don't want China stealing our intellectual property and we know intellectual property to the genetic engineering of corn is very important for increased productivity and profitability. So consequently they understand that China has been in the World Trade Organization for 20 years and they're cheating and cheating and not living by the rules of trade. And farmers are going to be better off if we get China living within the rules of trade.

Yepsen: Senator, I want to switch gears to the deficit. I've covered you a long time and I remember when you first got elected to the Senate one of the big issues was deficit spending. What has happened to the Republican Party's concern about federal deficit spending? It's going through the roof.

Grassley: The concern is that we made a decision two years ago that we were not going to accept the new normal that we were preached to by the Obama administration that this economy was never going to grow more than 2% well into the future. Looking at the history of America and the seven decades since World War II the economy averaged 3 and 1/10th percent growth. The worst decade of that seven decades we still grew 2.6%. So to have an administration tell us it's the new normal you're losing faith in America and we decided we're not going to lose faith in America, we're going to do whatever it takes to get us back on track of 3.5% economic growth so that we can grow this economy, create jobs and get more money coming into the federal treasury from growth. What this country needs is more taxpayers and we have more taxpayers now than we've ever had in the history of the country, we have less unemployment than any times in the last 51 years and we got it back on track and it will be economic growth that brings the deficit down, more taxpayers paying into the treasury, not higher tax rates.

Murphy: Senator, despite all those positive things that you just highlighted there is a growing amount of economic data and a number of economists who are warning that there is a recession on the horizon here for the U.S., do you share that concern?

Grassley: You know what, reading business pages for the last six or seven days I have come to the conclusion we're trying to talk ourselves into a recession. Now, I do think that the uncertainty of trade with China is a big factor in the slowdown of the economy, but I don't think there's a recession, particularly in America, around the corner. And what I don't understand now with the economy of China slowing down more than ours and probably more than the rest of the world I don't understand they're 15% of the world economy, we're 22% of the world economy, just think two countries, 37% of the world economy, and if we could get this trade issue taken care of, getting China not cheating on the World Trade Organization rules, and it would benefit China greatly, it would benefit America greatly, but it would do what trade has done for the whole world, it would benefit the whole world. From this standpoint that as I told the President one time, free trade has done this since World War II by lowering tariffs, 50% of the world was in poverty at the end of World War II, today it is 8%. That is because of capitalism and free trade.

Murphy: Speaking of trade, one more note on that before we move on, the new trade agreement between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, you've been advocating for that to be signed by Congress into law. Will that, assuming it does eventually get signed, will that be enough of an improvement on NAFTA to have made it worth these past few months of negotiations and the kind of market upset that has happened because of this? Will this new agreement be good enough?

Grassley: By the way, USMCA will be my major goal to get through the Senate just as soon as it gets through the House this fall and I think that's going to happen this fall along with getting lower drug prices would be my two goals for the rest of this year. So in regard to the question, yes, there's almost every new thing that wasn't even around 25 years ago when we negotiated NAFTA like protection for intellectual property, the digital environment we're in and free trade in that area and so many other areas that weren't around, they're included in it. Almost everything, for instance, that was negotiated in the Transpacific Partnership that the President pulled us out of, those things are transferred as we agreed to them into the USMCA. So that is very important. In fact, when this started I was surprised to have the commerce secretary of Mexico and the foreign minister of Canada tell me in my office that it was okay to renegotiate, it needs to be modernized. So the President wasn't out of step with those other two countries. So where it's going to benefit agriculture is in the areas of poultry, dairy and wheat with Canada and with the United States it's going to benefit us in domestic content for automobile manufacturing and driving up the price of labor going into manufacturing these domestic partners.

Henderson: Senator, quick policy question. Will the pharmacy industry kill your prescription drug bill?

Grassley: They just about did in committee because I, in fact normally I don't get a bill out of my committee unless I have a majority of the republicans on my committee for it. This is probably the first time I've been chairman of any committee that I had nine out of fifteen republicans vote against it. Thank God I had the White House on my side because the White House wants my bill and I think the President is talking of standing up against big pharma. I think that we got a bipartisan agreement that saves the taxpayers a little over $100 billion and puts a cap on the amount of money that one person can pay in pharmaceuticals a year and it does away with the donut hole and all these things that are pretty good that I think we can take on big pharma. Now, the question is will McConnell bring it up? So we have set up a pattern at the staff level during August to start negotiating with democrats in the House of Representatives to see if we can pre-negotiate something that the House can pass to put pressure on the Senate and McConnell to bring it up.

Henderson: Let's shift to the election. What is your view of President Trump's chance of carrying Iowa again?

Grassley: Very, very good. And I think when you think about the growth in the economy, the lowest unemployment in 51 years, getting NATO to pay more of their fair share of defending Europe and the stands he has taken against Russia, putting sanctions on, what he has done to pull us out of a bad deal that Obama negotiated with Iran, what he's doing to get North Korea to quit doing intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Henderson: But aren't they firing things into the ocean? And isn't there a danger that if the economy goes south his re-election will go as well? The polls seem to indicate that he has a steady core of support but is not growing beyond that.

Grassley: He is different, that's pretty simple, he's different.

Yepsen: Senator, before we get too deep into politics I want to go back to one issue that you were concerned about and that is floods, flooding, and the Army Corps of Engineers' standards for when it lowers the Gavins Point Dam, you were very critical of the Army Corps a few months ago, where does that stand?

Grassley: It would probably be the other four dams up the river above Gavins Point that are more of an issue than Gavins Point. Gavins Point is not really a place where they're going to control the water coming down the river as much as the other four. As far as I know we have not made any progress yet in getting the Army Corps of Engineers committed to making the flood control the number one priority of the engineers on the Missouri River. What's wrong, every time you have a flood they say it is their number one priority, but then when you go back between 2011 when we last dealt with this tragedy, now again 8 years later it proves that in those seven years it wasn't their major concern and we're going to have to keep fighting with them to get the job done. And there's a great deal of resentment on the part of people in that area that they had no problems before the 2004 manual was re-written, none of this disaster. So it's quite obvious let's go back to the manual the way it was the four years before then.

Murphy: Senator, Congressman Steve King this week found himself in the national headlines again when he was talking about his defense of abortion policy and his opposition to abortion laws that allow for exceptions in the case of incest and rape and what particularly garnered people's attention was when Congressman King sort of wondered aloud whether humanity would still exist if that had always been the case. I was just wondering if you had any reaction to the Congressman's comments?

Grassley: What little bit I think my staff told me the discussion was about it kind of boils down to what do I think about abortion and rape and incest. I'm pro-life and rape and incest is a crime and can't be tolerated.

Henderson: Do you support exceptions in federal policy for rape and incest?

Grassley: My general rule has been what can I do when the abortion issue comes up to save the most life? And if those things are included and you can't get a bill without including those I would include them. I'd like to be a purist in this area but you've also got to be practical about what can you get 60 votes in the United States Senate to get done and so if I want to be pro-life then we work to get those compromises where you make steps a little bit at a time.

Yepsen: But what about Steve King? You're a good republican, he's in hot water with a lot of other republicans. How do you feel about the way Steve King has conducted himself as a Congressman? He's got a primary now of three other people challenging him. Steve King?

Grassley: No different than when you see the outrageous comments by the squad in the House of Representatives or anti-Semitic comments about, from members of the House of Representatives. I'm a policy guy. Like I told Erin, when I go back there I'm going to be worried about getting the U.S, Mexico, Canadian agreement passed, I'm going to try to get drug prices down, I'm going to worry about policy. I'm not going to comment on everything that is ridiculously said by 435 members of the House of Representatives.

Murphy: Just one last thing, you're an Iowa republican, the fourth district has been consistently represented by a republican in Congress for a long time. The last time around Congressman King nearly lost that election, only won by about 3 percentage points in a heavily republican district. Do you have concern that if this pattern continues that democrats could actually win in the fourth district?

Grassley: No, I don't have any concern. That's the most conservative district in the state and there's a primary. I announced maybe six months ago I wasn't going to get involved in the primary because at least three of the candidates I know well and are friends with. Go ahead.

Henderson: You campaigned on Kim Reynolds' behalf in 2018 and toward the end of that campaign you told audiences that one reason that Iowans needed to vote for her was because she might have to appoint a U.S. Senator if something happened to you. Do you have something to tell us about your health, Senator?

Grassley: I'm healthy. You want to come and run three miles with me in the morning?

Henderson: Not in the morning. Are you going to run for re-election?

Grassley: Why don't you ask me that in about two and one half years.

Yepsen: We've got just less than a minute left.

Grassley: Don't forget I'm going to be serving the people of Iowa. Do you think I sit around and just think about re-election? Go ahead.

Yepsen: Only 30 seconds left. Your duties as president pro tem of the Senate, how do they affect the people of Iowa? Does it make any difference in your job?

Grassley: Well, I think historically the last time that there was a president pro tem from Iowa was exactly 100 years ago, A.B. Cummins. I think that it doesn't affect my representing the people of Iowa and I may be president pro tem, third in line to be President of the United States, but my work is all about representing the people of Iowa. I open the Senate, lead them, introduce the chaplain, lead them in the pledge of allegiance and then do a lot of ministerial functions.

Yepsen: Senator, my job is to close the show on time. Thanks for being with us.

Grassley: I'm glad, I've enjoyed it very much, thank you.

Yepsen: Before we go, an event reminder for next week. Iowa PBS's special presidential town hall series continues when I'll sit down with former Vice President Joe Biden for an hour-long discussion. Iowa PBS presents Conversations with the Presidential Candidates hosted by Des Moines Area Community College at their Ankeny campus on Wednesday, August 21st. The program will livestream at 7:00 p.m. that evening and broadcast on Iowa PBS Friday, August 23rd at 8:30. And we'll be back next week for Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and Noon on Sunday. So 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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