Podcast

On this edition of Iowa Press, Rep. Cindy Axne (D-West Des Moines) discusses the latest news out of Washington and look ahead to what she hopes to accomplish. 

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table are Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, and Brianne Pfannenstiel, chief politics reporter for The Des Moines Register.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.

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An historic start to 2021 with a new Congress, an unprecedented attack on the U. S. Capitol and a President impeached for the second time. We get some congressional perspective as we sit down with Iowa Representative Cindy Axne on this edition of Iowa Press.

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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. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, January 15 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

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Yepsen: After the marathon news of 2020, the year 2021 so far is keeping pace. In Washington, D.C., a new Congress was rushed from the Capitol as a mob breached the building. The event led to 5 deaths and the second impeachment of President Trump. And this all comes before the inauguration of President-elect Biden next week. To talk about it today we're joined by Iowa's lone democrat in the congressional delegation, Representative Cindy Axne. Congresswoman, welcome back to the program. Congratulations on your re-election.

Axne: I am so glad to be here and thank you so much.

Yepsen: Journalists across the table are Brianne Pfannenstiel, Chief Politics Reporter at the Des Moines Register and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Congresswoman, on Thursday evening Joe Biden unveiled a $1.9 trillion package that he wants Congress to act upon. Do you have sticker shock? Or is that something that you will support?

Axne: I will absolutely support that. The American public needs this more than ever. And so many of the provisions within the policy that he is putting forth will help us move through this pandemic really quickly. I like to say we're going to bring the vaccine to people where they are, not just bring it to places where we hope that they are. And so one of the most important things to move us through the economic downturn we have is obviously to get people back to a healthy state, free from contacting COVID 19. So a lot of the provisions in there help us with that and certainly on the economic side as well. We've got a lot to do to keep money in people's pockets and help those folks who are still unemployed. So I am absolutely going to back another package to help America.

Henderson: How long do you think the country will give Joe Biden to get the vaccine rollout fixed?

Axne: Well, listen, I certainly hope that they understand that we're literally up against a wall when it comes to a smooth transition at this point. And so the Biden team is doing everything they possibly can to make sure that the transition happens so we can move forward and get those vaccines out. I think people realize that there has been some delays in this and I hope that they give him a bit of a break. But I do think that they expect to see something rolled out quickly and he made a promise last night in his first 100 days he would get 100 million shots, I think that was something close to that. And that is fantastic. If we see that I think the public will be really impressed and trust what he had to say.

Pfannenstiel: Congresswoman, this week you signed a letter with republican Representative Ashley Hinson expressing concern about the vaccine distribution in rural America. What does the government need to do at the federal level and at the state level to ensure that rural Iowans have efficient access to this vaccine?

Axne: So, a couple of things straight out of the gate. First and foremost, make sure that whatever vaccines go out into rural America are the vaccines that they can actually support. Rural health care clinics don't have the capacity to store two doses of something that needs to be refrigerated. So that in and of itself says you can't take a particular vaccine, you're going to have to have another one. Those are considerations that we need. We also need to make sure that we can allow pharmacists and other folks distribute this vaccine in those locations where we do not have enough rural health care. And then we need to bring it to people that are out there. So the Biden administration will be bringing rural mobile hotspots, which I literally had asked for with this Governor to help us bring this out to people in our state, and it's about time that we get this moving. It’s a year later than I would have wanted it to, but I think these things will really help our rural communities. And then we're going to have to address the ongoing issue of rural health and that is something that the Biden team is working on as well.

Pfannenstiel: Joe Biden has said that this vaccine rollout is his top priority coming into office. But right now Congress has been focused on impeachment. Does this conversation about impeachment impede Joe Biden's ability to get this done by angering conservatives and creating divisions in Congress?

Axne: I think that there is an opportunity for the Senate and for the administration to walk and chew gum at the same time. We have been here before. I was able to get through two key bills during the impeachment week and I know that we can actively work towards helping the American public. And I hope that what folks see is that the Biden administration is actually getting things done while this is happening and I hope that that divisiveness isn't seen there. I also hope that people step and realize that if we do not hold President Trump and those who helped incite this accountable we set a precedent for this country that puts us in a very dangerous spot and more and more people are realizing that as we move forward.

Yepsen: But what do you say to republicans who say, and other Americans who say, why mess around with this impeachment? All you're doing is creating more division and animosity at a time when we ought to be bringing the country together. Let Donald Trump go and move on.

Axne: Listen, that is disingenuous, it's almost laughable. For four years republicans, including some of my colleagues here in Iowa, stood by every word that the President said and didn't push back on him as he lied to the American public over and over and over again and then eventually lied about election fraud and stealing the election and folks didn't come out and say, no this is reality he did lose. So now they want unity when there has been opportunity to have unity all along? All the republicans need to do is step up and say, this was a fair election. Guess what, we can all move forward at that point. But we have to hold the President accountable. It doesn't matter who sits in that office. He incited an insurrection through the words that he used not just on the day of, but for months leading up to that, and honestly for all the years that he has been in office. It's time to hold him accountable or what we do is allow this to be normalized. I can tell you there's not a parent out there that knows if you allow behaviors that create disruption, that cause pain, and you don't address it, you normalize it, you allow it and we'll see it again. We've got to protect our country.

Henderson: You voted to accept the state-certified electors' results in the presidential race. Why should the House not accept the state-certified results that show Mariannette Miller-Meeks won Iowa's Second Congressional District race?

Axne: Well, listen, I'm glad to see the Speaker sat Miller-Meeks for the time being until that is all resolved because I think it's important the people in the second district have somebody representing them. So she did the right thing doing that. Rita Hart had every opportunity to make sure that her voice was heard. I wish she would have been able to get that done at the state level, I think everybody does. But she has the right to take it to a federal level. Now, it's going to be, the House administration as they review this to determine whether it is going to be taken to the Speaker to come to the House floor. She is exercising a way to address those votes that she thinks are of concern out there. I am just under the belief that every vote should be counted. She is exercising what should be done. I wish it could be done another way, absolutely. But in the short timeframe that she had she felt that this was the way to go. And I'll always stand by every vote is what needs to be counted and whoever wins, wins. If it's Rita Hart, if it's Miller-Meeks, whoever has the most votes should win.

Yepsen: What do we do differently here in Iowa to prevent this from happening again? You've got a dilemma where somebody gets certified and some votes weren't counted. I can see the arguments on both sides. So what should the Governor and the legislature do to prevent this from happening again?

Axne: Certainly what we saw this past time is an anomaly from the perspective that we had so many more people voting, which is fantastic, and I hope we see that problem again. That's what we want, we want Americans voting. But in this case it was a lack of time to properly vet those votes and get that taken care of. Maybe there is an opportunity to look at policy where there's a little bit longer time. There is an opportunity between the election and seating somebody where maybe we could extend that time and allow a little bit more. So this could have been done at a state level. But I think we should look at making sure that we don't toss out ballots that didn't get counted and they should pick that up at the state and figure out what needs to be done in the future.

Pfannenstiel: Looking ahead to 2022, you're Iowa's top elected democrat in this state and people are already looking ahead to the Governor's race and wondering whether you might challenge Governor Kim Reynolds. Do you have any plans to run for Governor?

Axne: I know you journalists, I'm a journalism undergrad, you've got to get at these questions. I'll tell you, honestly, I haven't really even thought about what I want to do next. A year ago I didn't think we would have the worst pandemic in our country. Just over a week ago I didn't think that there would have been an insurrection at our Capitol. So I have been busy trying to address all of the issues that we have been facing that impact the people here in our third district. Listen, when we get through the next couple of months, get things moving in the right direction, I'll have a minute to take a step back and I'll think about it then.

Pfannenstiel: So you are considering it then or you will consider it in the future?

Axne: Right now I want to stay focused on my job. Listen, I'll tell you what, nothing is out of not being considered.

Yepsen: Does that include a run for the U.S. Senate if Senator Grassley’s seat comes up? He may or may not run again. Brianne asked you about a campaign for Governor. I'm asking you, how about one for the U.S. Senate?

Axne: Listen, we've got a couple of seats coming up in the next couple of years that are really important to the integrity of our country and I'm not going to leave anything off the table but I haven't made a commitment on what I'll be looking at, at this time.

Henderson: In the next few months, democrats will have a majority in the first 100 days of a Joe Biden administration. How big should democrats go? It's a very slim majority.

Axne: Well listen, we need to go big and we need to go big on the issues that Americans want and need across the board whether they are democrats, republicans or independents. Out of the gate we are going to have to obviously address the COVID issue with the package that President-elect Biden wants to put in place. We have to put an infrastructure bill in place and this is going to be a big infrastructure bill. But that will also put people back to work and solve a lot of the issues that we're facing in our country right now whether it's roads and bridges or broadband, which I have been working on for the last two years. I think we -- right now shows us how important connectivity for every single person in our country is. And so we've got to move forward, bold agendas like that, that move us forward in the right direction. Encompassed with that will be addressing schools and hospitals, rural health care. And then we need to move forward with addressing things like putting money in people's pockets, raising the minimum wage so that people can actually live off of one job, ensuring that they can afford their health care, lowering the cost of prescription drugs. We had 400 bills approximately that didn't even make it to the Senate floor this past term that really cover all of those issues. So we're in the process of bringing those really impactful bills back to the floor so that, honestly folks, we can just put money in people's pockets, give them opportunities that in many cases people in this country have been left behind and I do believe Iowa is one of those states, which I'm always trying to fight for what we get here and level the playing field so that people across this country actually feel that they, no matter where you're from, no matter what zip code you live in, you actually have opportunity for the American dream. So to do that we have to be bold in making sure that we have big packages that address it.

Henderson: A $15 minimum wage at the national level would be almost twice as much as the state minimum wage currently. Iowa employers pushed back on raising the state minimum wage. Do you support immediately raising the minimum wage nationally to $15 or does it need to be in gradations?

Axne: It needs to be phased in in gradation. The other thing that we need to address is making sure that that can work for all areas. I had a conversation with some folks in Atlantic recently, restaurant owners, and that is really tough for them to be able to get to $15 an hour. So we do need to look at some of those issues as well. $15 an hour is different in Seattle than it is in Atlantic, Iowa for a restaurant owner. How can we create opportunity for everybody, increase the minimum wage, but ensure that those businesses can survive through that? We're going to have to look at maybe tax incentives for some businesses where this is going to be a struggle. We need to look at this not just from this perspective that it's black and white, that everybody can do this, there's a lot of gray areas in between. I want to get there. We need to have a gradient to get that in. But we also should look at how we help those really small businesses in areas where that might be a struggle.

Pfannenstiel: What are your top priorities going into this Congress? What are a couple of the things that you absolutely want to get addressed?

Axne: Health care. We have got to lower the cost of prescription drugs. I can't tell you how many parents I talk to in our third district that can't afford their children's medicine and put food on their table. They have to make that decision. Folks who are taking half their diabetes insulin because it's either that or pay their electric bill. My gosh, we can do so much better than that. So that is number one. Addressing surprise billing, lowering the cost of health care, creating a public option so anybody can have appropriate health care, certainly making sure that we've got economic opportunity. I'm so excited to be in Iowa. I think we're literally poised to be a leader when it comes to, again, our space in renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, opening up new markets. For instance, one of the bills I was just on is creating a market for carbon. Let's pay our farmers to create, absolutely help them keep nutrients in their soil. So common sense bills that lower the cost of health care, increase economic viability for us, education to ensure that all of our kids are getting what they need and that means we've got to make sure we address post-secondary education, the cost of that. Certainly I think we need programs in place for two-year colleges to move young people from high school to at two-year program into a job. We have technology jobs going unfilled that pay really well. We have construction jobs that we can't get people for. Let's get those things figured out, fixed and get time in the pipeline. Not only will we address our economic issues but we'll create opportunity for a lot of people.

Henderson: How much further do you need to go on what you refer to as surprise billing where you get a health care bill and you have this exorbitant fee from someone that you never had an opportunity to say hey, I don't want anesthesia from that doctor? How much further do you have to go? Because there was something that happened in December.

Axne: Right. So what we've done is we have taken the patient out of the problem, thank goodness, because how this ever ended up on the patient's shoulders to fix when decisions were made between providers and insurance companies is beyond me. So that was first step. I do know that some of our providers are concerned. They want to make sure that this works well for them. So I think there is going to have to be some work done to ensure that between the insurance companies and the providers that those who are delivering the services are made whole. But there needs to be transparency around it. That has been one of the biggest issues related to health care that we've seen in this country whether it comes to services or medicine. And then we've got to make sure that it's the insurance companies who are held responsible for making sure that those payments are made and that the patient isn't held with the bill.

Henderson: You raised concerns about the U.S. Postal Service over the summer hearing, you said, from constituents who were getting their prescription medications online. Have the problems in the Postal Service been corrected? Or what more does Congress need to do?

Axne: I don't think those problems in many cases have been corrected because unfortunately this administration, and in particular in appointing DeJoy to run the Post Office actually wanted to strap it from being able to deliver the mail and to actually have us have a good voting system. So we've got a lot of unpack there and make sure that those workers have the resources that they need. We saw where some sorting facilities lost some of the equipment that they needed or it was shut down. We're going to have to go back and work with the people who are actually working there, the managers and the mail carriers and the sorters and say what happened here, what do you all need. The United States Postal Service has been strapped for years because of the requirement to prepay their health insurance. That is one thing that has got to go. It's not acceptable to just have them responsible for that when we don't have other government entities who have to follow that. It's not the fact that the USPS can't run a budget, it's the fact that they have been asked to have a major expense that is almost impossible to be able to pay for and keep mail prices low for people in this country. So we're going to have to get that fixed first and then go in and look at what they need.

Pfannenstiel: You were named again to the House Agriculture Committee. An issue that has been coming up for the past several years are these waiver requests for the RFS and we saw that come up again this week. Do you think that issue will improve under a Biden administration? And what do you need to do to continue to make sure that those requests are denied?

Yepsen: And Congresswoman, before you answer, I want to remind our viewers that this show is being taped on Friday morning because this may come up in the next few days.

Axne: It may and we're already addressing it. I'm co-chair of the House biofuels caucus. I invited my colleague Ashley Hinson as well and she joined and we both wrote a letter together to the leadership and the presidency to stop this. My gosh, how much more can we take from this President and this administration? Literally just stab us in the back as you walk out the door. We were told we could at least rely on law to protect us from those waivers and here we go again wanting to issue the majority of those waivers even though it has been deemed not legal. I can tell you I've been working with the Biden team a lot on this, I have been working with Governor, now will be Secretary Vilsack on this as well for months when we knew that Biden would be coming in. It's part of the plan already. It is listed biofuels as a priority within the Biden agriculture and energy plan. And I am so excited to be able to be a part of that and we are going to make this happen. We know how important it is to not just Iowa but for this country to have clean, safe energy and our biofuels here in Iowa is one of them.

Henderson: How does Congress resolve the child care dilemma that many Iowans face?

Axne: Kay, this is going to be a big issue moving forward. We already knew, as you mentioned, we've got child care deserts here in Iowa and we're at risk of possibly losing half of our child care centers across this country and Iowa will be no exception to that. There is support within the Biden plan to ensure that we get child care centers back up and running. I want to make sure that they're also done in a safe way to protect our children because we've had issues here in Iowa from the perspective of infants dying or being injured or children. That is unacceptable too. So we're going to have to get an opportunity out there for folks who want to go back into the child care setting, for child care settings that have suffered a lot right now from an economic perspective, reinfuse them with the revenue that they need to get back up and running and make sure that they can do that in a swift manner as the President as he comes in, as President Biden comes in, starts implementing all of the requests and mandates and changes he wants to make with COVID to get our economy up and running. Mask wearing, all of these things. If we can put these pieces in place, we can get child care back in place, we can get our economy back up and running. But folks need to know that they can put their kids in a safe setting. I know how hard that is. I still remember those days walking away with my sons crying as you're leaving the daycare center. I want our parents to know they can go back to work and feel comfortable where their kids are. So we're already addressing it. And I believe child care is infrastructure, Kay. Honestly, without it, it is equally as important for people to be able to work as it is taking a road with your car to get to your office building.

Pfannenstiel: You have said that you support Iowa maintaining its first-in-the-nation caucuses. Joe Biden this week said he would name Jaime Harrison, the South Caroline Democratic Party Chair, to lead the DNC. Do you think this is good news or bad news for Iowa's Caucuses?

Axne: I don't really know at this point. We'll see what that means. I think folks have seen throughout the years that Iowans take this really seriously with who we pick and I hope that we continue to stay in the lead. Listen, there is a lot of blame to go around with what happened in the Caucuses and certainly not all of that has anything to do with the Iowa Democratic Party. Some of that had to do with federal changes. And I'm hoping that we can continue to impress the fact that we do make sound choices here in Iowa and that we'll be able to continue to hold that.

Henderson: Do you think the caucuses are healthy or harmful for the party in the broad picture? There was great turnout for the Caucuses on February 3rd and then the party had a shellacking on November 3rd.

Axne: Listen, I think it can go both ways, Kay. I think that certainly as we have the Caucuses here folks are vetting ideas and we're a big tent party so we have people who believe in a lot of ideas from more centrist to really progressive. Sometimes that can be difficult because that message gets out there and unfortunately republicans will use a lot of that messaging against us and even though it's not something that whoever is running might be using as their platform. So there are some things like that, that I think are negative with it. But overall I think it is healthy for our democracy, I think it is healthy for our election system to have as many people putting their ideas out there and I love that Iowans get a chance to listen to it.

Yepsen: Just about half a minute. What went wrong for democrats in the last election?

Axne: Listen, we didn't get out and knock on doors. That is issue number one. I think if we had, we would have definitely kept our congressional seat in the first district. I think Rita would have won outright. And I think across-the-board some of those folks who lost their seats would have kept them. But we tried to do what was right, keep people safe, but I think we missed the boat there.

Yepsen: And I don't want to miss the boat. We're out of time. Thanks for being with us here.

Axne: Always a pleasure.

Yepsen: Good luck. And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and again at Noon on Sunday. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.

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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. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

Iowa Bankers Association
Associated General Contractors of Iowa