On Friday, July 6, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley stopped in Iowa City as part of his commitment to visit all 99 counties in Iowa. Tru Art Color Graphics and Bankers Advertising Company hosted the senator’s town hall meeting in the calendar factory that is the heart of the 122-year-old business; the meeting was in part an opportunity for Grassley to take a tour and see the manufacturing in action. (Full disclosure: This writer also works at BAC, the promotional products distribution wing of the company where the town hall was held.)
The town hall was attended by about 50 people, split between members of the local business community and Tru Art and Bankers Advertising employees. The Chamber of Commerce, Iowa City Area Development Group (ICAD) and Iowa Association of Business and Industry (ABI) were represented. The meeting was not announced to the general public.
Tru Art and Bankers Advertising president and recently named ABI chair David Bywater offered opening remarks welcoming the senator and giving the history of the company and the space. Grassley spoke for a few minutes only before opening the floor to questions. The town hall lasted about 40 minutes. The event wrapped up with U.S. Chamber of Commerce regional representative Ethan Hellier, who presented Grassley with the chamber’s Spirit of Industry award, presented to members of Congress to recognize commitment to the business community. After the town hall, Grassley allowed a few minutes for media questions.
Grassley’s interaction with the audience was information-heavy but short on concrete action steps. The questions from the crowd ran the gamut of domestic issues from industrial hemp to renewable energy, with a brief foray into international issues with trade.
Replacing Justice Anthony Kennedy
Things kicked off with a straightforward first question about the vetting process and timeline for a Supreme Court nominee, with the senator indicating that the president’s goal is to have someone in place by the beginning of the court’s new term, the first Monday of October.
“Now, if it doesn’t get done, it wouldn’t be a big deal,” Grassley said, “but if it can be done then, that would be ideal.”
Agriculture and trade
The same questioner who raised the issue of industrial hemp (“I think with the lack of controversy about it, that it would go through,” Grassley responded, while acknowledging that he didn’t know whether it was included in the House’s Farm Bill) also praised the senator and Senator Joni Ernst for their work on pushing through flood mitigation funding for Cedar Rapids.
Bywater raised the question of trade himself, asking of the administration’s negotiations, “Where do you see that ending? There’s a lot of concern here in the state of Iowa.”
“There’s no way that I can answer your question,” Grassley replied. “I don’t know whether the president could answer your question on when it’s going to end.” He paraphrased a conversation he had last week with President Trump, recalling that he told the president, “Really what bothers the people here in Iowa is the uncertainty of all the trade issues coming up,” and the response was: “The longer you negotiate, the better deal you will get.” Grassley did see some light at the end of the tunnel with respect to China and NAFTA, but he expressed some concern about brinkmanship, warning “if [Trump] goes over the brink, it could be catastrophic, and particularly with agriculture.”
Health care and wages
The greatest concern among the crowd, Grassley spoke positively about health care and wages despite repeated challenges, largely discussing the matter in terms of national data trends and praising deregulation and tax cuts as means to creating jobs. Grassley did reference infrastructure specifically, noting, “One thing that we need in Iowa that separates us from highly urban areas is more broadband; that’s going to give an opportunity for people, particularly small business, to be more effective in entrepreneurship.”
He moved on quickly from a follow-up question about minimum wage, noting that Iowa could increase its minimum wage if it wanted to, but he doesn’t “see a movement in Congress right now to increase the minimum wage.” A similar question about wage stagnation — “Do we just have to live with it?” — was met with more praise of job creation and historical data that indicated a “process of improving” even though he admitted that some “categories of people” have yet to see the benefits of that.
One wide-ranging commenter in the audience pulled no punches: “It’s not getting better, it’s getting way worse,” she said, pointing out that as a single woman with no children, she has to work two jobs just to survive, and knows many others in the same situation. “I believe that the statistics are deceitful to real life and what’s really going on.”
That questioner also called out the state of mental health care in Iowa and ongoing issues with homelessness.
The senator responded by lauding efforts on the national level to address mental health issues, specifically a bill passed last fall from Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA). On the state level in Iowa, however, he said, “We could be the worst example of [lack of beds]” for mental health. Grassley also blamed a “shortage of mental health professionals,” calling for greater use of nurse practitioners and telemedicine to “fill in some voids.”
Grassley had sharp words for “Big Pharma,” encouraging use of generics as a way to reduce health care costs overall. He also advocated for importing drugs from other countries, “something that Big Pharma doesn’t like.”
Grassley’s longest comments by far were in answer to “one last quick question” on the future of social security. “If you knew how scared members of Congress are of people who are senior citizens, you wouldn’t even have to ask that question,” he quipped at first, but then got into some of the nitty gritty of what would be necessary to protect social security:
“Congress is going to have to step in, and it’s going to have to be a combination of taxes, some changes in benefits, some changes in the age for qualification, and it’s going to have to be timed so it takes effect, let’s say, 15 years into the future, because if somebody’s 61 now, you’re not going to change their benefits next year when they retire at 62 … but it’s gotta be done, because social security, and Medicare as well, is part of the social fabric of America.”
He emphasized the need for Republicans and Democrats to come together, but noted vehemently that “the president doesn’t have to have a plan, but you gotta know that if you’re gonna go to that trouble, that he’s gonna sign it. And that’s why nothing’s getting done — and particularly, nothing’s getting done with this president … If we did something, he’d veto it.” In closing, he joked of the passionate tone his remarks on social security had taken: “If I yelled at any of you, I’m not mad at anybody.”
Final remarks to media addressed border security and immigration.
“Right now, getting the families back together is the main goal,” Grassley said, “and that’ll be in the Department of Homeland Security. I have some oversight on Homeland Security, but my main goal would be to oversight what the Justice Department said on 100 percent enforcement of the law — that maybe we ought to take for granted, but I wonder if there was planning for what would come up there. Obviously, I don’t think there was a lot of planning.”
He spoke of a meeting that he and four other senators had with representatives of all three offices involved (Homeland Security, Department of Justice and Health and Human Services) on June 28. “They said, ‘Well, you know, we’ve only had three days to work on it. We can’t give you even firm figures.’ Probably something more than that’s accomplished now, but I can’t give you an update on it because I haven’t been involved.”
Grassley sidestepped a question about the fear felt by immigrant communities here in Iowa by placing the onus of alleviating concern over illegal immigration on employers, stating that he believes it should be mandatory to use e-verify when hiring. He also stated that people should be encouraged “with every opportunity they can to come to this country legally.”
In answer to a question regarding the effect of tariffs in Iowa, the senator warned that industries involved with steel could see their raw product prices go up as much as 25 percent and that businesses involved in international trade could become less competitive. In response to the question, “How are you advocating for Iowans on this topic?” Grassley replied,
“Mostly it is limited to advocating. But I have to apologize: Past congresses, before I ever got to Congress — the 1963 trade law, the 1974 trade law — delegated too much authority to the president. Not for the immediate problem, but for the future, we’ve gotta review all those legislation and see if we shouldn’t have less delegation of authority and discretion to the president. But … the short term answer is … try to wake the president up that this is a very nervous situation for us out here.”