U.S. Representative Zach Nunn

Iowa Press | Episode
Apr 14, 2023 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Rep. Zach Nunn (R-Bondurant) discusses his priorities and the work he's doing in Washington, D.C.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Brianne Pfannenstiel, chief political reporter for The Des Moines Register and Clay Masters, host and lead political reporter for Iowa Public Radio.

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



Republican Zach Nunn is just a few months into his new role representing Iowa's Third District in the U.S. House. We'll sit down with Congressman Nunn and discuss the work he's doing on this edition of Iowa Press.


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For decades, Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, April 14th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: Our guest today is a former member of the Iowa House and the Iowa Senate. He's also a former member of the U.S. Air Force where he was an intelligence officer. He is the former commander of the squadron at the Iowa Air National Guard. And you're currently a member of the U.S. Air Force Reserve. Last November you were elected to represent the Third District in Iowa in Congress. Zach Nunn, republican from Bondurant, welcome to Iowa Press.

Nunn: Kay, thank you very much. I appreciate you having me on the show today.

Henderson: Also joining our conversation are Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio and Brianne Pfannenstiel of the Des Moines Register.

Pfannenstiel: Congressman, a member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard was arrested this week in connection with leaked classified documents. Given your background in military intelligence, what should happen to him?

Nunn: Well, first the case has not been closed. What we know at this point is that we have had a very serious leak of important information that was at the top secret and above level. And just so we're all on the same page here we recognize that top secret is information that could do grievous damage to national security, not just to our own immediate national security, but for our sources and methods, those men and women who are in the field collecting important information, in many cases at a potential threat to their own life, so they can share that with the U.S. government for their own national security. If indeed we have an individual who is 21 who has gone out there and is basically boasting about his access to classified information and leaking it in a way that not only harms national security but puts front line collection methods in jeopardy, we're in a very dangerous position. And unfortunately, I think in my 20 years both as an intelligence officer and as a counterintelligence officer hunting these people who violate this, we have almost mellowed the level of punishment that we had. Look, when I went in 20 years ago it was immediate that we could serve a lifetime in prison if we violated this top-secret standard. But from everyone from the Bradley Manning case to Edward Snowden, who now is a Russian citizen, we have continued to diminish what it means to sacrifice national security issues. This is something that one, I don't abide by, it's something that I think Congress needs to be looking at holding both the administration and ourselves accountable and in this case, I think this is an individual who did it knowingly, who was briefed on what the dangers were but chose to go ahead and violate it anyway. So, we're going to look through the entire case, we'll let the courts work it out. The Department of the Air Force has something to answer too as to why an individual who was a guardsman had access to this level of classified information and then how they got it out of a secure facility and put it online. So, there's multiple breaks here and I want to make sure there's clear oversight on this, one so it doesn't happen again, and two so that our adversaries don't get a tactical advantage over the United States on this level of breach.

Pfannenstiel: Does this point to any kind of broader problem with intelligence vulnerabilities?

Nunn: I think it broadens the conversation that we've had for a while now. Let's look at the entire scope of things. Less than a million people in America have access to secret or above classified information, an even smaller amount at that top level. So, we're already talking about a fraction of a fraction who have access to this information. Now, it's imperative as I've learned in the intelligence community that we have not only a responsibility to protect but an ownness to share meaning that we're not having the type of horrible situations that we saw in 9/11 where a lot of great information was available but it was so stove piped people didn't have the ability to share that information and prevent those style of attacks. That being said, the type of information that we are talking about now is not something that should be fodder for somebody's Facebook page or the potential to leak to a friendly reporter because they want to get a story, particularly when there is a direct national security threat nexus involved in that.

Henderson: The other thing we're hearing is that why did a 21-year-old have this security clearance? How old were you when you got a security clearance?

Nunn: Yeah, I think I was 24 but the reality is we put young men and women on the battlefield at 18 with very sophisticated weapons and expect them to be able to do things. For me the concern is not the age. My concern is that these individuals were briefed to be able to get a top-secret security clearance, we're talking about a polygraph, they're going through a very thorough vetting, they know ahead of time what the threat is, but they made a conscious decision to violate that trust and put themselves before country.

Masters: Some of the documents that were stolen had to do with the war in Ukraine. We're seeing kind of a split within your party as far as U.S. military aid to the war in Ukraine and supporting troops in Ukraine. Where do you come down on that issue?

Nunn: Yeah Clay, so this is a great conversation. This is the same conversation we were attempting to have with the administration over a year ago. I think you'll remember both myself and Governor Reynolds in February of last year were sending body armor over, we were sending Kevlar helmets, we were asking the state police to give up their resources to help folks on the front line to be able to defend their country. I believe very strongly that what happens in Ukraine is going to have a ripple effect on despites the world over. So, the United States can be a partner in helping the Ukrainians defend themselves now with decisive weaponry as I've called for over a year, things like surface-to-air missiles, the stinger missiles that we finally got, I think we should be buying a lot more jets from NATO that the Ukrainians already know how to fly, and fielding. What we should not do, as a veteran of the 20-year war in Afghanistan, is allow a slow bleed of U.S. material to seek out Ukraine and say, we'll get you fighter jets 18 months from now. That does no difference in standing up to Russia. Here's the real reality. If the United States is not a steadfast supporter in a very specific victory, and we have to spell out what that looks like, my opinion is it's stopping Russia in Ukraine, we have the ability to change the tide in Europe. If we step back from that we force ourselves as the United States to empower somebody like Putin to feel like they have the ability for long-term to drain the West, fracture NATO. That emboldens what we've already seen happening in Iran through the IRGC doing tactical drone strikes both on U.S. forces and in Ukraine as well as I think the big elephant in the room here is China. And where does Beijing feel like they have the bandwidth to be able to sell weaponry to other countries that funnel that to Russia and also present a two-front challenge to the United States both in Europe and in Southeast Asia.

Masters: Does that political infighting do any good when you're trying to expedite something like this, having a robust conversation when time is of the essence?

Nunn: Yeah, so I think that there are fiscal hawks and I would say that I'm one of those who don't want to see a blank check going to Ukraine with no strategic outcome in place. I've been very clear on this, if we're going to be involved in Ukraine then we need to be involved to win the conflict, not to prolong the conflict. I will not stand by and fight to the last Ukrainian. Let's have the ability to give them the weapons that Zalensky has asked for, for over a year now, so they can do lethal action against Russian aggression, terminate it now, protect their country.

Henderson: You have proposed a new regulation for members of Congress to prevent sort of the revolving door of leaving Congress and becoming a lobbyist of members of Congress. Why? And does this have any prospect for passage?

Nunn: So, Kay, we put forward a number of bills that I think are very important, not just to say what worked in Iowa is something we should look at doing in Washington, but also to hold those people who were elected accountable. So, the first one obviously as we said, proxy voting must end. You have to show up for work and you have to vote present. Two, the Stock Act Trade that we're looking at is something both republicans and democrats have largely agreed to. You shouldn't be getting rich on insider information and then making some trades that get you an advantage. I will say this is an area where a lot of republicans have come up to me and said, I'm not sure that this is something I can get behind. And I am steadfast on standing up to my own party and to democrats who don't think this is happening. The other two areas where I think it's really important is that we talk about congressional pay. This is one of those issues that perennial shows up. Right now, Congress is having the opportunity to give themselves a $7000 pay raise. I think that is ridiculous, particularly when the American people have suffered for the last few years with increased inflation. Nobody that I know in Iowa in a middle or low income family is getting a $7000 pay increase. There's no reason that I should. We've called out Congress for this. And I will say, I got a feedback from some of my senior republican members in the parking lot saying, hey freshman, what the hell are you doing with that bill? I think that says more about where they are on this issue than where we want to be in making sure elected officials are held accountable. And the very last one that we put forward is the idea that you can't just go and be an elected member of Congress and then immediately get out and start lobbying for the same people who were influencing you. It's a dangerous situation when our elected officials go to Washington, D.C. and then as you know revolve out that door and are immediately on the other side of the aisle trying to influence what is going on. So, this would set an extended period. I will say this, this is the starting point for a long-term conversation. I think that the majority of republicans who have been elected as freshmen, and we are a diverse class of combat veterans, women and minorities, feel very strongly that these are the right bills to do. It may take a while to get that senior individual in the parking lot to come on side me. But ultimately these are bipartisan best practices that we've done here in places like Iowa, we should be doing them in Washington as well.

Pfannenstiel: Iowa routinely shows up on a list of biggest offenders when it comes to puppy mills. You have introduced legislation to try and crack down on that. Again, this seems like a perennial issue that comes up in Congress trying to close those loopholes. So, what does your bill do? And can it actually move forward?

Nunn: Yeah Brianne, I appreciate you highlighting this fact. This is something we worked on in the state of Iowa when I was the Chair of the Judiciary Committee really cracking down. As the Congressperson for the Third District one of the things that I think we found highly offensible nationwide was this getting rich farm, this idea that you would bring puppies into a confinement facility, stack them multiple crates high, urinate and defecate on animals below them, and then sell that puppy off to become part of a family member's home. No livestock farmer in Iowa would treat their livestock that way, there is absolutely no reason that for those good growers of puppies should have to be put in the same boat as these horrible puppy mills. And you're absolutely right, Iowa continues to be one of the worst offenders in this. The real challenge with the Goldie Act, and this is named after a golden retriever who tried to be rescued from the getting rich farm in Wayne County and ended up dying, was that local law enforcement wanted to act on this. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had notified the farm several times that they were in violation but never followed up. So, this is as much as holding the bad actors accountable as it is the federal government. I'm happy to say that this bill is a bipartisan bill. This is something that we have picked up and we have expanded on with the Puppy Protection Act, this makes sure there's clear guidelines so that growers know what they can do, it really sets a best practice out there. But then also it's something that on the Ag Committee, where we're very fortunate to get to serve, I think this is something that our good growers want so that they have the ability going forward to show that they have a standard of excellence. There's no reason that Iowa should be at the bottom of this pile. More importantly, I think this is something that anyone who has ever had an animal in their home as a companion animal, a dog specifically, wants to see these animals growing up in this hardship. And this is a step in the right direction.

Masters: The Department of Education, switching gears here, has been a punching bag for republicans for a lot of years. At the same time, we're seeing legislation come forward with a so-called parental bill of rights. How do you square those two things off philosophically when we're talking about education when local control was something that was talked about a lot when it had to do with education and state's rights? Philosophically how do those two concepts square off against each other?

Nunn: Yeah, so I think in the wake of COVID we have seen a lot of things as parents ourselves, as the father of six kids, is that there are great things about our schools, but there are also things across the nation that we believe there should be a level of transparency. When I watch on the news a parent at a school board meeting being treated as a domestic terrorist, I think that struck a chord with a lot of parents that just for asking questions all of a sudden they were being put as an enemy of the state. That's not something that any of us want. We have great educators, we have great administrators, we have great teachers, but we also have great parents and kids who want to be involved in this. The best thing that we can do is have a level of transparency and that is really what the parents bill of rights that passed in the House looks towards. One, you've got to be able to share your curriculum, something that we do here in Iowa, let's make that national. You've got to be transparent about your budget. This shouldn’t happen behind closed doors with no input from the community who is ultimately paying for this with their tax dollars. And that we want to have the ability for parents to have a voice and go to their school board meetings and be clear on what is important to them with a receptive school board.

Masters: One thing though I think that a lot of times gets left out of these conversations has to do with kids that might not have a supportive home where school is that safe place for those kids. And those families do exist, these children are out there. What do you say to the folks that are concerned that this has a negative impact on kids that don't have a supportive family and school is where they go for support from their teachers?

Nunn: Yeah, no I think that is absolutely something that we want to continue to enhance. I don't think asking for transparency in budget, in curriculum, in going to a school board meeting, diminishes that at all. If anything, hopefully it brings more parents into the conversation and talk about a community-based solution for helping kids of all types. And Clay, I'll just highlight, we just adopted two kids last week. There was a situation where these kids did not have any of that immediate community support, but some of the people who really stood up and were leaders in this were the Department of Health and Human Services here in Iowa. There is a role there for good governance, but at no point should we expect government to be the parent or take the role of the parent or to attempt intentionally or unintentionally to limit a parent's voice in their child's education.

Henderson: You're a member of the House Financial Services Committee and there has been an uproar about crypto. What should Congress do to regulate this industry that a lot of us may not understand?

Nunn: So, I served for many years as the Director of Cyber Security at the White House and one of the things getting on the Financial Services Committee as a freshman is what we call one of the top A committees. We're very privileged to get to serve on that. We also realize that there is a very high bar for what they expect of people serving on Financial Services. We went into this with a very clear conversation specifically setting up a committee on digital assets. Now, I will say kind of an inside baseball here, the committee that actually oversees digital assets is the Ag Committee, we treat it like a commodity, which I'm also serving on. So, we have a blended opportunity to bring in both crypto and digital assets into this conversation. Here's my immediate aspect on this, when I was a young intelligence officer I started playing with Bitcoin in the basement, mining it on my own PC, and if I would have kept that hard drive I might be a very wealthy man right now, or I might have lost everything that I had depending on when I chose to sell it. The problem is, is the ups and downs of the crypto market are highly not only variable but dangerous. This is my challenge, I don't want to see our Central Banks going to a digital currency as a way to track, monitor or evaluate where Americans are spending their money. But I also don't want the U.S. government to step away from digital currency because as we saw with the gold standard to the paper currency to where we're going in the future, if we don't provide some level of left and right framework on this, there is a real danger that that capital will flow to where there is a market. And I'll tell you who is leading in this, China, Russia, Iran. These countries have identified that the best way for them to get dark money is through things like digital assets including crypto currency. And if the United States refuses to play in this market we will push investors who find crypto perhaps a good lucrative investment for them or just a place where they can park their capital for a while that ultimately is going to be controlled by those countries who are very hostile to the United States and they will monitor them, they will track them and they will have the ability to have control over an increasing segment of where capital flows throughout the United States.

Henderson: So, do you view this as the Commodity Exchange in Chicago and these are commodities and there's no FDIC like thing that guarantees the deposits you have?

Nunn: Yeah, so I think that this is going to be a conversation we're having this congressional session between where the commodities market lays and where the SCC wants to be. Now, the SCC has I think rolled in pretty heavy on this with the administration saying, all digital assets are ours, we know best how to regulate them and then they've shown up and had very little conversation on what that tangibly means. I think in Congress, both in the Senate and in the House, we are looking at providing, again, the left and right framework for where we could set up a market for crypto to not only be successful but to be a partner with the rest of the capital markets in the United States.

Pfannenstiel: As we've been covering the 2024 caucus campaign trail, abortion policy is in the conversation this week. Tim Scott was in Iowa. He said that if he is elected he would sign a 20-week abortion ban, he would consider a 15-week abortion ban. Would you vote for either of those?

Nunn: Yeah, so those are both hypothetical right now. I think we've seen just in the last week alone that we have two appellate courts here in the United States, both offering conflicting information on this, and as the Dobbs case came out last year we've seen a Supreme Court that has really pushed this back to the states. I've been very clear on this, we need to make sure that states are the ones leading this charge because they're the closest to the people who are involved, including the mothers and the families that are going to have this conversation. I think that these appellate courts are probably going to end up in the Supreme Court. And for anyone in Congress or anybody even running for President to start laying down mandates is premature. Here's what I know, I have been very involved both at the Statehouse and in Washington, D.C. already in my first 90 days in making sure that we are providing contraceptive to families when they need it, making sure that mother and baby are taken care of throughout the pregnancy process and then making sure that there is an on ramp for the 4,000 foster kids in Iowa right now to find a family if they can't stay with their biological family.

Pfannenstiel: So, does that mean, when you say it should be left up to the states, that you do not support a federal abortion ban?

Nunn: I think that we're too far down the road for that to have a conversation. Right now, I want to make sure the states are doing it. Here's what we've done at the federal level. We have said those extreme things like late abortions, we passed a bill in the House to say that we're not going to support that. The attacks on health care clinics, we passed a bill to say that level of violence is unacceptable. That's the role for the federal government right now. The states are the ones taking the lead on this and I think that is where it should be.

Henderson: Senator Ernst has supported a bill that would allow women to get contraceptives from behind the counter at a pharmacy. Is that something you support?

Nunn: Yeah, very much. And I also think one of the things we've done here in Iowa that would work at a federal level is this telehealth production, giving the opportunity for those who are in need who may be in a rural area or in an urban area or just in a place where they can't get immediate access, to have that conversation and receive those medications when they need them at a time and place of their best accessibility, which is another reason we've been very aggressive, again on the Ag Committee, pushing for a reconnect bill that really expands broadband, real infrastructure dollars for real broadband development across the United States.

Masters: You bring up the fact that you're on the Agriculture Committee. The Farm Bill something that's being talked about a lot lately, of course a lot of people think about corn and soybeans here in Iowa, but it has a big deal with SNAP, formerly known as food stamps as well. Are we going to see anything with the Farm Bill? Or is it going to get kicked down the road?

Nunn: No, I certainly hope so. And this is one of the areas we're very excited about. We've been out in all 21 counties in the Third District now multiple times just in my first 90 days. And one of the big things we're trying to do is listen to farmers on what are their priorities because this is a Farm Bill that we want to be able to see pass and there's two competing interests here. There's a fiscal conservative part which wants to see basically everything either shrunk or maintained in the budget. And then there's a group on the left who wants to see SNAP, supplemental nutrition assistance programs, grow from 80% of the Farm Bill, roughly a trillion-dollar bill, to 85%, 90%. Here's what we have heard back directly from farmers. Look, as much as we support a lot of the things in SNAP, you can't put food on the plate if you can't grow it in the field first. And the challenge right now is the more that we cut in to that small amount, that 20% that really goes to helping farmers grow, innovate, conserve, we're not going to be able to grow to the production levels that we want for not only SNAP to be successful, but for anybody in Iowa who likes having food on their plate at the end of the day. Iowa I think is a leader in this. We're a leader in corn, pigs, eggs, soybean. We have the opportunity to cross the aisle and really look at what are some smart ag solutions. One of the reasons that when I got to Congress and we sat in the House for I think 72 hours voting on that Speaker, I crossed the aisle, I talked to democrats, I made friends with a woman by the name of Representative Nikki Budzinski and she is from Springfield, Illinois. Nikki and I may not agree on a lot. In fact, I'd say most days of the week we probably only agree on about 10% of things. But on ag issues where we both sit we are mutually aligned. And I know it's important for me to be able to sit down with a democrat, we have gone to dinner several times to talk about the ag bill, to challenge Secretary Vilsack on a couple of things like year round E15, but to be able to say that if it's going to pass in the House we need to make sure it can pass in a democratic controlled Senate and it can be signed into law this year by a democratic President. That's my priority.

Pfannenstiel: You appeared with former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley in Des Moines this week, you introduced her to a crowd of folks here. Should we expect to see you endorse anyone this caucus cycle?

Nunn: I am thrilled with Nikki Haley. There is a woman who has been the youngest Governor, she's a minority, female, she would be a great President and I'm very happy to say that I am proud to be endorsing anybody who will come to Iowa and speak to Iowans. I think it's really important, this is one of the things that's great about the Iowa Caucuses, I invite our democratic friends to still spend time here. Getting to come out and talk to Iowans is probably the best way for people to get a pulse on what is happening in middle America. We're going to have a lot more, we've got Tim Scott coming up, Ron DeSantis down the road here is going to be joining us. I think there's going to be a lot more entering this race and this is a conversation Iowans are going to get to make their choice on who they endorse.

Masters: Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson is here right now and I covered an event yesterday where he was saying it's time to move on from former President Donald Trump, that what he is saying about the last election and saying that he won when he did not when Joe Biden was elected President. Do you think the party should move on from Donald Trump?

Nunn: Here's what I feel very strongly about, we should be talking about the next four years, not relitigating the last six years. And I'm happy for anybody who wants to come to Iowa and give me a vision of where they want to be. I know very much that's what I'm hearing from Iowans as well.

Henderson: So, there is a bill in the Iowa House of Representatives that would require in-person participation in the Iowa Caucuses. Do you have a view and what is your role in the party in promoting sort of this bipartisan history in which republicans and democrats have joined together to preserve Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses?

Nunn: One, it's a beautiful thing. And I think that's something that we should all be working across the aisle whether you're a republican, a democrat or an independent who just wants to continue to see Iowa have an opportunity to help shape the future of our country, this is something that we should be working together on. I'm not going to comment on individual legislative bills. That is a separation of powers. Being in the state legislature and being a member of the Republican Party I feel very strongly that we did the right thing to be a champion to make sure that Iowa retained its first-in-the-nation caucus status. I think the democrats at large wanted to be there. I applaud Ross Wilburn for doing the right thing on the democratic side to try and advocate for it. I was disheartened to see some of my colleagues across the aisle frame Iowa as a racist state or a state that was too small or a state that didn't give people the opportunity. I feel very confident that President Barack Obama if not given the opportunity as a community leader and junior Senator to come to Iowa and actually talk with people got his meteoric rise. That would not happen if you have a larger candidate with a massive war chest who can just pour money into it as Hillary Clinton attempted to do or as Jeb Bush attempted to do. You flash forward to what is happening in South Carolina right now. That is a state where maybe the President doesn't even show up to work on his primary because you can put so much money into the media market there you don't even have to shake a hand if you bought all the commercial time. That doesn't work in Iowa. That's what makes me proud about Iowa's caucus process.

Henderson: Congressman Zach Nunn, thank you for joining us on this edition of Iowa Press.

Nunn: Appreciate it, thank you very much.

Henderson: You can watch every episode of Iowa Press online at iowapbs.org. For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching.


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