Iowa’s Senator Joni Ernst joined me this morning to talk about the Senate’s rules:
HH: Pleased to welcome back to the Hugh Hewitt Show Joni Ernst, the senator from Iowa. Senator Ernst, welcome, good to have you here this morning.
JE: Oh, good morning, Hugh, it’s great to be on with you.
HH: You are the first female combat veteran in the Senate. I hope Martha McSally becomes the second. But that gives you a unique perspective. I think you were elected originally in 2014…
JE: That’s correct.
HH: And you’ve been there long enough now to talk to me about this. First of all, why do you think the Schumer Shutdown collapsed so quickly?
JE: Well, I think it was a bad idea to start with. And the Democratic Party, at least Schumer as leader of the Democratic Party, they recognized that. And they saw that there was no way out. They did not think this through. They didn’t know what their end goal was. And again, it was just a, as quoting one of these news stories this morning, it was an epic failure by the Democratic Party to extract legislation out regarding DACA. They held up our spending bill over folks that aren’t even their constituents.
HH: So this brings us to the rules of the Senate. They were able to shut down the Senate because of the rules of the Senate. Are you, Joni Ernst, happy with the rules of the Senate?
JE: I am not happy with the rules of the Senate. And I think you’ll find that many of my colleagues disagree with the way business is being done right now. We have to get back to regular order. Everybody will talk about that, but we have to act on it, find a way that we can get our appropriations bills done. That’s what we are supposed to do as Congress is get these spending bills done. And we have not been able to do that. And the past three years that I have been here, 2016, for that fiscal year, we had one, one appropriations bill signed into law. That was military construction. In 2017, that was the only one that got through as well. And here in 2018, we have not been able to pass any appropriations bills.
HH: Now Senator, I have a column in the Washington Post today, and I have tweeted it out, that suggests that a rules change bipartisan effort would focus on appropriations reform and on appointments other than those to the Supreme Court, because minor appointments are clogging up the Senate, like Rick Grenell should have been in Germany five months ago, and he can’t get 30 hours of floor time because of the slowdown. Do you think there is support for, across the aisle, for a package of rules changes?
JE: Well, it always depends on who’s in charge. But I do think that if we are working forward in a bipartisan manner, understanding that whoever is the party in charge has that same opportunity, I think we could get some buy in, especially important as getting these appropriations bills done. We need to have our Defense budget put in place. That is one that I have been pushing heavily as a combat veteran in the United States Senate, and believe that we have to do better for our men and women that are serving in uniform.
HH: Now I have your colleague, Chris Coons, coming on, as well as five other senators today. It’s the Gang of 7 on the Hugh Hewitt Show.
HH: And we’re going to talk about this rules change deal. Are there some Democrats who you think are the epitome of reason that could sit down and come up with a package that would be an up or down vote, maybe the Leader could agree with Chuck Schumer to get six, eight sort of center-left, center-right reasonable senators together to come up with a package to put before the body?
JE: I think it is a very good goal. And I think we should strive for that. And I do believe that we have reasonable partners on the other side that would be willing to consider this. It is then up to the Democratic leader and our Majority leader to make that ultimately happen by a vote on the floor of the Senate. But I do think that we should strive in that direction. I think it’s important if we want to get our work done in Congress. We have to make changes, because obviously it’s not working right now.
HH: Now in terms of the interpersonal relationships, have you got genuine friends across the aisle?
JE: I do. I do, and some of them are folks that I disagree with completely, or at least maybe 98, 99% of the time. I disagree with them on policy, and yet we can still be very close friends. There are those that are more moderate that are good friends I enjoy visiting with. Chris Coons is my neighbor here in the hall. We’ve got Tom Cotton across the way. So we all get together. We do talk about things other than work. And that does help us. When we have difficult discussions we have to have, we can have those without offending each other, and that’s really important here in the United States Senate.
HH: So my thesis is that if a gang of seven came together on rules changes, or a gang of eight, and they said okay, appropriations bills are going to be 55 votes, or 52 votes, or whatever it is, or that minor appointments are going to get two hours, just minor changes to make the body work, because I think, Senator Ernst, the body is in disrepute regardless of who runs it. I don’t know if you feel that in Iowa, do you?
JE: I do feel that in Iowa. And while people will say Joni, we support you, you know, we are frustrated with Congress. We are frustrated with Congress. And I get that. I’m frustrated with Congress. And if I’m frustrated with Congress, that means something’s wrong here. And I am here to make change, and I think many of us that were elected in 2014, 12 Republican senators elected in that cycle, and we have got to institute some changes to the body if we expect to get our work done for our folks back home.
HH: Now I know the Leader is very committed to retaining the rights of the minority on legislation. However, appropriations are an annual deal. And it just seems to me that they, and appointments have already been changed by the Reid Rule when he invoked the nuclear option. So that’s already a simple majority vote. But the slowdown, the intentional slow walking of appointments, and the appropriations process, seems to me to be the obvious places to begin. Is there another obvious place to begin Senate rules reform that I’m unaware of?
JE: Well, I think those are the two most prominent ones where we need to start. And appropriations, that’s our business. Again, that’s our responsibility as Congress. And we fail to appropriate every year. We fail. And that’s not good enough for the American people. We’ve got to do better. We’ve got to do better for our military. That continues to be one area that I am extremely, extremely disappointed in, the fact that we have not been able to support them the way we should be supporting as Congress. And then the nominees, and an entirely different situation where we are faced with 30 hours of debate on every appointment out there if the Democratic leader so chooses. And that’s slow walking. We would never, I think James Lankford figured up how long it would take if we do this with every nominee, and it came out to somewhere around 11 years, I believe, it would take.
HH: Senator Ernst, this is a sidebar for me, but it’s an issue that drives me crazy. Germany is the most important non-nuclear power in the world. Our nominee, Rick Grenell, passed committee months ago, and he still hasn’t gotten a vote. Have you heard anything about this?
JE: Well, this among many others, because in the State Department, we still have many, many important positions to fill. We still don’t have our ambassador to South Korea in place. We hope to do that very soon. But all of these really important negotiators to our allied countries are not in place. We have many positions at the Department of Defense that have not been filled. We have positions that are important to me in my home state of Iowa at the U.S.D.A. that have not been filled. We have a farm bill coming up, too. And we don’t have the right people in place to work some of the provisions. So it is becoming an issue when we have holdovers from the Obama administration that are making decisions in those departments. That is unacceptable.
HH: Well now, let me ask you to play a little spitballing game on names. If you had to nominate for the Democrats four senators to be part of a rules reform gang, which four would you nominate off the top of your head?
JE: Let’s see. I think I’d start with Angus King, because we do a lot of work together. He is a little more moderate. Probably Chris Coons would be another great one. Probably Amy out of Minnesota, Amy Klobuchar, she’s been hard at work with a lot of these efforts. And oh gosh, and probably for that fourth one, pick anyone. Pick anyone.
HH: Pick anyone. Probably, maybe someone from the progressive left, because…
JE: I think, to get buy in, I think you’re right, Hugh.
HH: And on our side, who steps into the picture from your perspective?
JE: Well, I think James Lankford has been very, very active.
JE: …in that he is quite reasonable. I love working with him. I would love to be involved in an effort of that magnitude. I think we’ve got a few other folks. If you want to go more moderate, there would be, of course, Lisa Murkowski or a Susan Collins. I think a Deb Fischer is someone that I work quite well with as well. And I think she would be a great go-to.
HH: Okay, now I want to talk very briefly about the Dreamers and the Defense bill.
HH: The Dreamers seem to me to be a not very complicated issue. If they get to stay, regularized, then they don’t get to right to bring family members in, and at the same time, we get an appropriation equal to the necessity of border security which yesterday was told to me to be about $25 billion dollars by Kevin McCarthy.
HH: And we get some diversity lottery reform. How hard is that package to proceed with, Senator Ernst?
JE: You know, from our side, it’s not hard. It’s not hard. The demands coming from the left is what makes it hard. I have heard from Dreamers in my own state, and amazingly, Iowa does have a lot of our registered DACA recipients. I have heard from two different points of view from recipients. I’ve heard from one young lady, she said I don’t even care about citizenship. I just want to know that I can stay here legally during my lifetime, and I would like to join the military, because I want to serve. Okay, that was one perspective, bright, young woman. She made a significant impression on me. Another Dreamer that I talked to was insistent that her, she be granted citizenship immediately, her mother be granted citizenship immediately, and that she’s tired of people talking about the rule of law, and so very different perspectives coming from Dreamers within my own state. So I think that’s representative kind of, of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party right now. We have those Dreamers that are out there. They’re wonderful, contributing people within our communities. And then you have those that are insistent they receive automatically the rights of every other United States citizen right now today. Yesterday would have been better. But I think that we’ve got to come together on this. We have to do it. But key to this, especially for the folks in the Republican Party, is that we do it with border security. We have to know that we are closing down and controlling parts of our border that present great problems to us. We have a lot of drug trafficking, human trafficking that happens over the border. We should not have an open border. It should be controlled. We have big problems. You hear about opioids all the time. Well, in Iowa, it’s still methamphetamine. And a lot of that is coming over the Mexican border. We need to be able to control that, and understand what’s going on there. We can’t do that with an open border.
HH: That’s a balance, that we are out of time, Senator Ernst, but come back and talk about the Defense bill. I know we’ve got to get to a 20 month bill, and I know you’re working hard on that. I appreciate the time this morning, Senator Joni Ernst from the great state of Iowa.
End of interview.