Sen. Joni Ernst

Iowa Press | Episode
Jul 17, 2020 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Red Oak) discusses the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and Iowa's 2020 U.S. Senate election.

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

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


(music) The November 2020 election is only a few months away and one of Iowa's hotly contested races is front and center in the national battle for control of the U.S. Senate. We discuss issues and the campaign with Iowa Senator Joni Ernst on this edition of Iowa Press. (music)               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. 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. (music)           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, July 17 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen. (music) Yepsen: In 2014, when then Iowa State Senator Joni Ernst ran for the U.S. Senate, the race entered a national spotlight for control of Congress. Now, six years later, Senator Ernst is running for re-election in a different political landscape, but still in the national spotlight with control of the U.S. Senate hanging in the balance. To discuss the campaign and the many issues confronting Iowans, Senator Ernst joins us today at the Iowa Press table. Senator, welcome back. Ernst: Thank you, David, very much, good to be with you. Yeah, thank you. Yepsen: Journalists across the table are Brianne Pfannenstiel, Chief Political Reporter for the Des Moines Register and Kay Henderson is News Director for Radio Iowa. Henderson: Senator, let's start with pandemic policy. You have this month said that in a second stimulus package you would support a second round of loans from the Paycheck Protection Program for businesses that already got them. Do you support the payroll tax cut that the President would like to see in the package? Ernst: Actually I have talked to the President about this. I do have a frontline worker bill which is for essential workers, those that have been working through the pandemic. I took this idea to him and said, let's give a payroll tax holiday or an income tax holiday to those that have been working through the pandemic. And so he said, well that is a good idea. And even Larry Kudlow and the Vice President agreed that this is a good thing to do. So I am hopeful that my frontline worker bill will be part of that next package. Henderson: So you are not in favor of just a payroll tax cut for everybody, it has to be for certain people? Ernst: This is for those essential workers and they have already been outlined. So those that have really been putting themselves on the line during COVID-19. It does cover a wide swath of the population, but it would be for those that are working during the pandemic and would allow them to keep their own tax dollars, just keep them in their pockets. Henderson: Iowa this week saw even more people than the week before file for unemployment claims for the very first time. Would you support continuing the additional bump in unemployment benefits and including that in the next round of stimulus? Ernst: Well, looking at the next round of COVID-19 recovery we'll have to take many things into consideration. So the things that I'm focusing on are very much childcare centers, because as a mom I understand the difficulties if you don't have good childcare, you can't go back to work. So looking at various barriers. What is keeping a mom or a dad from going back to work? We have many employers that are trying to reopen their businesses and they're having a hard time getting workers back in. So if we can eliminate some of those barriers and make sure that we can safely and sensibly get people back to work the unemployment additional bonus won't be such an issue. However, we will need to address needs of those that are still unemployed. But I think that is part of that discussion, we want to make sure we're having that discussion. Pfannenstiel: Senator, an estimated 5.4 million Americans have lost their health insurance through the course of this pandemic. As Congress considers this next round of stimulus and aid recovery should they insert something, should you insert something into those measures to address that issue? Ernst: It is important that we are providing an opportunity for quality health care but at an affordable price. And as we have seen there are those that have lost employment. So is there a way that we can go in and help cover the needs of those Americans? So that should be part of our discussion. So as we're talking about health care as well we also need to address the needs of our rural health care systems because not only do we have individuals that we see that are losing their opportunity at employer-sponsored health care, we also see that those systems are starting to fail. So we have two different avenues there. One, you have to be able to afford that insurance, make sure that that's accessible. But then in the end you have to have somewhere to go as well to receive assistance from a provider. So we'll be addressing those issues, we'll be taking them up. And again, we're going to have to have a robust and a healthy conversation about this but not just about all of those workers, but also about maintaining our clinics and our hospitals through rural America. Pfannenstiel: Speaking of health care, the Trump administration has been pushing the Supreme Court to repeal the Affordable Care Act in full. But in the 12 years that law has been in effect, republicans in Congress have not come up with an acceptable plan to replace it. So what should happen? What will happen? What will you guys do if the Supreme Court makes good on the Trump administration's push and repeals that law in full? Ernst: Well, I think it's very important that we continue supporting those that have pre-existing conditions or very complicated health histories, I think that is extremely important. In my own family my sister and brother are both juvenile diabetics and they have lived on insulin shots every day of their life, so I know how important that is. So I would back a plan that would support using federal and state dollars set aside to help those with the most difficult of medical needs. So I think that is really important that we do that. But then also addressing the overall cost of health care, not just insurance because the ACA was insurance, but insurance costs will continue to go up as long as health care costs continue to go up. And so I think we need to look at health care costs which includes prescription drugs and making sure that we are driving those costs down for those consumers and those patients. We also need to look at really transparency within the health care system and understanding what we are paying for the services and how that is negotiated between the health insurance companies and our hospitals and clinics. Pfannenstiel: Is Congress prepared to act quickly if that becomes an issue? Ernst: Yes, I believe so. There are a number of plans and we will go back and revisit those plans. But the difficulty is bringing everyone together in consensus on the appropriate plan to move forward. But I think understanding that we are facing a very hard reality with the Supreme Court decision making sure that we can get everybody into a consensus and ready to act quickly and hopefully the House will be ready to support what we're able to do in a bipartisan basis in the Senate. Henderson: There's no consensus in the country right now about wearing face coverings in public. You have said on several occasions that it's entirely appropriate. Senator Grassley has been talking about it. Mitch McConnell, the republican leader has been talking about it. Are Senate republicans doing this in hopes of encouraging the President to embrace this as a national policy? Ernst: Well, I do wear my mask and I think it's really important. And I think if we can influence anyone that will take the proper precautions I think that is a good thing. So I do it more as a leader myself and encouraging the different groups that I'm with to wear face coverings, just to do the simple things to prevent the spread of coronavirus. And if the President would choose to do that, that would be wonderful as well. Henderson: Is he making a mistake by not coming out forcefully and saying wearing a mask is important? Ernst: Well, I would say that it would be a mistake for me not to do it so, again, I am wearing a mask. But I am engaging closely with a lot of different groups. And while the President is protected, I am engaging face-to-face with a lot of Iowa constituents and doing a lot of meetings where I do think it is appropriate to wear the face masks. Pfannenstiel: You were criticized for an interview that you did with CNN recently in which you did not criticize the President for a potential lack of leadership, for what some people see as a lack of leadership even though more than 100,000 Americans have died of this coronavirus, even though you did condemn President Obama's leadership when just 2 people had died of the Ebola virus. It sounds like you're comfortable with the way the President is handling this issue. Is that correct? Ernst: Well, I think his leadership was exhibited when we first learned of the coronavirus. That was the start. He was heavily, heavily criticized, President Trump was when he said we need to close down our country's border, we need to quarantine those coming from hot spots in other countries. The folks on the left were criticizing the President for exhibiting leadership and making a decision that was very hard to do, it was hard for him to do that, but he decided it was the best thing for our nation. And then in the meantime we have folks on the left that are saying, that's not appropriate, we shouldn't be doing that. But it was the right decision. And so I didn't see that same quick reactionary type of leadership exhibited by the previous administration. Now, this is a global pandemic and it is very different than the Ebola virus. But what we should look at is what have we done along the way? Right now we have Operation Warp Speed underway, which the President put together. And the Chief Operating Officer of that is General Perna who is a logistics expert that is bringing civilian entities, private entities and our military structure together to quickly deliver on vaccines, therapeutics and other treatments for those that have been hit by coronavirus. The United States is really doing a very good job focusing on the end solution which is to prevent any more coronavirus through vaccinations and treatments. So I think we give kudos where kudos are welcome and necessary and we can be critical in other areas. Pfannenstiel: If a vacancy were to open up on the U.S. Supreme Court, would you support the Judiciary Committee, which you're a member of, holding confirmation hearings? Ernst: I would. I would be supportive of that. We have a republican held Senate and a republican President and so I don't see that there would be any difference between the President and the Senate on a selection of a Supreme Court Justice. Henderson: So why didn't you have hearings for President Obama's nominee? Why was it important to let the voters decide? Ernst: Well, and that was a different situation. First, I was not on the Judiciary Committee. Henderson: But you were in the Senate. Ernst: Yes, a republican held Senate with a democratic President and so we were divided on who that selection would be. This is a different scenario where you have a republican President and a republican Senate, there's likely not to be a lot of disagreement when it comes to the selection of a justice. Yepsen: Even in a lame duck session after the election? Ernst: It's very different than what we have seen in the past. We have seen different presidents, a president of a different party and a senate of a different party in previous scenarios. But in this scenario we have the same party that is the majority in the Senate and the same party that is in the White House. Yepsen: What's different here is it could happen during that lame duck. We're talking about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she announced again she's ill with cancer. If President Trump is defeated, if republicans lose control of the Senate, would you still support doing this prior to January? Ernst: Well, one, I wish nothing but the best of health for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I think we all do and I'll be praying for her. And it is a lame duck session, I would support going ahead with any hearings that we might have and if it comes to an appointment prior to the end of the year I would be supportive of that. We would need to have some very serious discussion about that. But again, even though it's a lame duck session it is still a republican President and still a republican Senate. Henderson: You supported legislation which calls for renaming military bases which are currently named for confederate generals. The President has said he is perhaps going to veto that legislation. What is your argument to President Trump that this needs to happen? Ernst: Well, one, I always think it is important to have discussion. This is a highly emotional suggestion to rename these confederate bases, or these confederate named bases. But my reasoning behind that is that, one, those bases weren't named until the early 1900s. They were named after confederate generals. And those gentlemen were gentlemen that took up arms against our United States. And so we can have many debates about the good of keeping a name or getting rid of a name. I would support maybe changing those names because these were people that did not want to be part of our great United States and I think the honor in naming an installation after a person, it really should be somebody that believes in our great United States of America. That would be my argument to the President. But again, I am open for discussions and I think we should all be open to those discussions. If we're not open to discussions then we are not going to move our country forward. Yepsen: And there were some 13,000 Iowans who died fighting those traitors. And so I'm curious if you have any names of other people that you'd like to see put on those bases? Ernst: Well, and this is the danger of naming installations and buildings after people is because while we may view them as great Americans at this point in history, what is to say in the future, again just as we've seen here, that attitudes and the direction of the country doesn't change and 50 years in the future they're saying, well this person didn't treat his grandmother appropriately or he didn't go to church every Sunday, we think that we should rename that building or that base. So I think we have to be very cautious in how we make decisions. Yepsen: As the first female combat veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate you don't have the name of a woman whose name ought to go on one of those bases? Ernst: I actually don't, no. And it has been suggested that maybe we look at those that have earned the Medal of Honor through their meritorious service t our great country. But again, attitudes will change. What if it is someone that served during Vietnam, and oh my goodness, talk about the controversy surrounding a number of wars that the United States has engaged in and the attitudes in the country do change. So I think we need to be very cautious about how we move forward here. But again, the men that these installations are named after, they were traitors to their country and I believe that we can do better. Pfannenstiel: You met with Representative Ako Abdul-Samad recently and other black community leaders to talk about racial justice and you acknowledged that those were going to be some uncomfortable conversations. So I'm wondering if you can tell us something that made you uncomfortable that stuck with you that you're going to carry on in your conversations about these issues with your other senators. Ernst: Well, a lot of the conversation was very well received by me and I was extremely thankful for the Representative's invitation to come and I think that was the first step in many conversations that we will have in the future. And it's just uncomfortable to invite yourself into a setting if you don't feel that you're welcome. But the Representative made me feel very welcome in that discussion. But you are absolutely correct in that there were some uncomfortable points in that discussion, some very heated thoughts that came from the African-American leaders that came forward and their discussions about how they felt that the whiteness that I have is better utilized for moving forward their agenda than their actual voices. And so that was uncomfortable for me to hear, but at the same time I understand that they have had these voices for a very long time and maybe folks haven't listened to them because maybe they took for granted one race or another. It's uncomfortable, it's uncomfortable to talk about it now but we have to talk about it. And I think by asking questions and letting them know too that as a Caucasian woman I am uncomfortable asking questions, so please let me know that it's okay to ask questions that I desperately want answers to and I think we all have to approach it like that or, again, we aren't going to move forward. They want to be understood, but those of us in white American, we also want to be understood and we want to be helpful in many ways. But if we can't ask questions without being scrutinized we just aren't going to have those honest conversations. Henderson: The EPA has been scrutinized by Iowa corn growers, particularly those who invested in an ethanol plant. Your opponent has said Andrew Wheeler, the EPA Administrator, should go right now. You have said he should go if he doesn't follow through on a court ruling in regards to waivers to oil refineries. Why give him the benefit of the doubt given the EPA's track record here? Ernst: Well, because we have been successful in a number of fronts and moving forward with E-15 is something that I did secure. So having E-15 year round and moving forward with infrastructure. So he has made a commitment to make sure that 15 billion gallons of ethanol are utilized or provided for through the RFS. And so if he is honoring that commitment and we'll see what happens with the gap-year waivers, there has not been a decision with these new waivers that folks are bringing forward -- Henderson: And he added more this week. Ernst: Well, and that, let me explain that too because I asked him about that because I was very upset that these all of a sudden showed up. And so I cornered him on a phone conversation and Chuck Grassley was on that phone conversation as well, and I said, you need to throw those in the garbage. And he kind of was like, Senator, Senator, he said, by law, by your law I have to accept petitions at any time. And so I understand, he is following the law there. And so I said, that's great, those petitions, go ahead and accept them and then throw them in the garbage. Henderson: Why is it taking so long? The court decision was at the beginning of the year. We're more than halfway through the year. Ernst: Well, these are different types of waivers. And believe me, I'm not defending the oil industry because, again, I don't think we should even have to look at those. But again, by law he is required to receive those. They go through a third party review. But I believe they should be denied. Yepsen: Senator, we have just a little time left. I want to ask you about absentee ballots. There is a pretty good controversy going on in the country and in your party over absentee ballots. You've got republican President Trump bad mouthing mail-in ballots, expressing concerns about absentee votes, yet here in Iowa we've got the republican Secretary of State Paul Pate who mails them out and is all for it and he's ahead of the National Association of Secretaries of State. Where do you come down? Are you worried about a lot of rural republicans being turned, and older republicans being turned off from voting by what the President is doing and saying? Ernst: Actually I'm very comfortable in this space because I was a county auditor in Montgomery County and as a counter auditor I was a commissioner of elections so I'm very, very familiar with our Iowa election systems. I am okay with absentee voting, I am, because in Iowa that voter, while the Secretary did mail out absentee ballot request forms, he didn't just mail out ballots. So our voters actually have to sign and say I would like to receive an absentee ballot. There are signatures then on file so if you feel there's something not right you can always go back and compare the various signatures on the request forms and the voter registration card. So I'm comfortable with it. Yepsen: Auditors in the democratic counties, in the big democratic counties in Iowa are sending these applications out on their own. Can the auditors in little Montgomery Counties all over Iowa afford to do that? Ernst: They can, I believe they can and simply by mailing out those ballots and we do, I know we always tried to prepare for a certain number of ballots to be sent based on past year's history. But those budgets can be amended if necessary and it is a voter's right to ask for an absentee ballot. So if they're asking for it, we have to provide it. Yepsen: Brianne, just a couple of minutes. Pfannenstiel: Senator, our most recent Des Moines Register Iowa Poll showed that a majority of adults here believe the nation is on the wrong track, 63% said they believe the nation is on the wrong track right now in the midst of the pandemic and of national protests. Do you believe that Americans are better off today than they were 6 years ago when you took office? Ernst: It is hard because we are in the midst of a pandemic and certainly I think many of our Iowa families feel that if they're unemployed, no they're not better off. If they have someone that is ill they are not better off because of the pandemic. There are a lot of things that have happened in this past year that are unprecedented. We started the year with impeachment, which was just an exercise of futility, I think with what was demonstrated by the House members and the Senate. We moved from that directly into the pandemic. We moved from that into racial injustice and protests in the streets. And so there has just been one episode after another this year that has made a lot of people very uncomfortable or in tenuous positions with the pandemic. So it is a very, very difficult year. But I can assure Iowans that I have been leading through these episodes, I have been fighting for farmers, fighting for veterans, fighting for working moms and dads, attempting to provide child care, through these relief packages, all of those things are very good for Iowa families. Yepsen: I'm sorry, I'm fighting the clock and we're out of time. Thanks for being with us. Ernst: Absolutely, thank you very much, appreciate it. Yepsen: We'll be back next week for another edition of Iowa Press when we'll preview the November elections with State Political Party Chairs Jeff Kaufmann and Mark Smith. That's Iowa Press next week, Friday night at 7:30 and again at Noon on Sunday. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today. (music) 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. 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.