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Report Card for 113th Congress

Saturday, Dec, 21 2013

A Guest Commentary by U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley

As the first session of the 113th Congress ends, year-end performance reviews are under way.  Public opinion of Washington is remarkably low.  The mismanaged roll out of the federal health insurance website and broken promises from the President have frustrated many Americans.  A shortsighted decision by the Senate Majority Leader to trample on minority party rights has likely poisoned the well for sweeping bipartisan achievements in the U.S. Senate.

Still, rank-and-file lawmakers in Congress continue working on the people’s business that affects the lives of ordinary families, workers, farmers, students, soldiers, veterans and retirees.  From keeping rural health care and higher education accessible to hardworking Iowa families; to championing renewable energy that’s good for consumers, the environment and economy; balancing intelligence-gathering with privacy rights; or, challenging the administration’s decision to sweep the trafficking and sale of illicit drugs under the prosecutorial rug, I’m working to make sure the nation’s public policies square with the principles of good governance and proper stewardship of tax dollars.

As a member of the Senate Budget, Agriculture, Finance committees, Ranking Member of the Judiciary Committee and co-chair of the International Narcotics Control and Foster Youth caucuses, I’ve participated this year in scores of congressional oversight, nomination and legislative hearings to advance economic and social policies that build upon America’s landscape of opportunity, mobility and prosperity.  Whereas many in Washington seem to believe that redistributing wealth and raising taxes magically will solve income inequality, cure global warming and achieve world peace, the fact is that Washington has a spending problem, not a revenue problem.

Washington needs to take less so that Americans can do more spending and investing with their hard-earned money to create jobs and prosperity.

It’s frustrating this Congress busted the spending caps agreed to in August 2011.  Although Washington won’t face a government shutdown after the New Year, it’s irresponsible to raise an additional $63 billion in revenue over the next 10 years, but spend it all over the next two years.  These kinds of budget agreements contribute towards the $17 trillion national debt hanging over the taxpaying public’s head.

Here are a few items of business I’m working on to try to make a difference in how government serves “We the People.”

·         Strengthening whistleblower protections.  Washington can’t afford to weaken incentives that encourage civil servants and private sector contractors to come forward with information about waste, fraud and abuse. Congress needs to step up oversight as tax dollars flow throughout the federal bureaucracy and the courts need to stop diluting whistleblower protections. A provision was included in the National Defense Authorization Act to protect military whistleblowers from retaliation. Much more needs to be done, including passage of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s bipartisan bill to root out sexual assault in the military.

·         Vetting nominees.  Whether it’s the IRS, Homeland Security or lifelong appointments to serve on the federal bench, members of the U.S. Senate have the constitutional duty of advice and consent.  Scrutiny of these nominees is an integral function of our republic’s system of checks and balances that demands more than rubber-stamp approval.

·         Promoting sibling connections and beefing up child support enforcement.  I’m working to secure bipartisan legislation that would help siblings retain ties with one another when a child is placed in foster care or parental rights are terminated.  Moreover, the bill moving through Congress would give states more tools to recover money that family courts have determined is owed to custodial parents.

·         Championing renewable energy.  It’s disappointing the Obama administration has proposed rules that would roll back the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) in 2014.  From rental income earned from wind farms to the market value boost for Iowa commodities, policies such as the wind energy and biodiesel tax credits and the RFS have helped foster job creation and economic growth to the rural economy.  I’ll continue beating the drum in Congress to scuttle Big Oil’s efforts to dismantle America’s renewable energy policy.

·         Reforming farm payment system.  My efforts to install payment caps that limit how much individual farmers may receive per year were included in the Senate and House versions of the farm and food bill.  Reasonable limits are needed to keep the farm safety net defensible, especially as Congress considers sizable savings in nutrition assistance spending.

·         Cracking down on patent trolls.  A legislative remedy is necessary to curb the prevalence of abusive patent litigation.  The budding patent troll phenomenon is forcing businesses to divert scarce resources towards settlement or litigation that would otherwise be channeled towards innovation, research, development, job creation or expansion.  I’m working on legislation that would strengthen the integrity of the U.S. patent system that has allowed innovators and inventors to flourish and prosper for generations.

·         Securing access to rural health care, increasing oversight and expanding transparency of Medicare payments.  During committee mark-up of a must-pass Medicare physician payment bill, I secured bipartisan amendments that would make permanent a payment index that helps Iowa providers receive fair reimbursement relative to medical providers in other parts of the country; continue the Medicare-dependent hospital program to recognize the valuable service these hospitals serve in their low population areas; beef up independent investigation and oversight of Medicare spending; and establish a free, searchable Medicare payment database.

Regardless of the overall record of the 113th Congress, my work in the U.S. Senate is full steam ahead as the new year begins.  My nose is to the grindstone in Washington, and I’m launching my 34th annual 99-county road trip for meetings with Iowans.

posted by: Dennis Lowe 7 month(s) ago Comment On This Post


I Hate The Big 4 Classic

Monday, Dec, 9 2013

I hate the Hy-Vee Big 4 Classic.

Yes, you read that correctly.  I actually hate a basketball “classic” that features the men’s basketball teams from the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, the University of Northern Iowa and Drake University.

This “classic” is a disservice to UNI and Drake.  Both schools once enjoyed home-and-home series with the Panthers and Bulldogs.  It provided a financial windfall for those schools and provided Hawkeye and Cyclone fans to see their teams play at the McLoed Center in Cedar Falls and the Knapp Center in Des Moines.  The Big 4 Classic has destroyed that.

Iowa and Iowa State didn’t like the arrangement.  Personally, I think they got tired of occasionally losing games to their in-state rivals.  It looked bad and hurt recruiting.  Conversely, it helped UNI and Drake.

Many think this “classic” is a cash grab for the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines.  I can’t disagree with that.  I have no proof either.

As a fan, what really bothered me was where the “classic” was televised.  It was Mediacom’s MC-22, an analog channel.  The video on that channel was absolutely horrible, especially considering the HD world we now live in.

If this “classic” is for the fans, as organizers claim, can we strike a broadcast deal with someone who will broadcast the games in HD?  It’s not that much to ask.

posted by: Dennis Lowe 7 month(s) ago Comment On This Post


Assault on Ethanol Misses Its Mark

Saturday, Nov, 16 2013

The following is a guest commentary from U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley:

As its market share dips, Big Oil is doubling down to swat down its perennial piñata.  This time around, petroleum producers and food conglomerates are using environmental groups as political cover to gain traction on efforts to pull the plug on the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS).

Despite the ridiculously transparent and self-serving assault by these special interest groups, the relentless campaign to discredit ethanol undermines America’s longstanding efforts to diversify its energy landscape, fuel the economy and strengthen national security.

The predictable efforts to smear ethanol’s reputation ignore the renewable fuel’s valuable contributions to clean energy, rural development, job creation and U.S. energy independence.  The latest round of misguided untruths disregards the plain truth. Ethanol is a renewable, sustainable, clean-burning fuel that helps run the nation’s transportation fleet with less pollution.  Yet, critics continue to hide behind distortions that claim ethanol is bad for the environment.

Let’s talk turkey and separate fact from fiction regarding ethanol’s impact on the environment.

Critics say farmers are putting fragile land into production to cash in on higher corn prices at the expense of soil erosion and clean water.  They point out that five million Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres are no longer enrolled in the conservation program since 2008.  They want to pin the blame on ethanol.

First of all, fewer acres enrolled in the CRP has more to do with federal belt tightening than land stewardship decisions by America’s corn farmers.  The 2008 farm bill built upon other stewardship incentives for America’s farmers and ranchers administered by the USDA, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, wetlands restoration and wildlife habitat programs.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), no new grassland has been converted to cropland since 2005.

Fact:    The Wetlands Reserve Program in 2012 had a record-breaking enrollment of 2.65 million acres.  WRP lands cannot be farmed for 30 years.

Farmers must make marketing, planting and stewardship decisions that keep their operation financially sound and productive from crop year to crop year.  Even more importantly, these decisions must be environmentally sustainable for the long haul.  Let’s be clear.  Farmers simply can’t afford not to take scrupulous care of the land that sustains their livelihoods.

Fact:    Fertilizer use is on the decline.  Compare application per bushel in 1980 versus 2010 – nitrogen is down 43 percent; phosphate is down 58 percent; and, potash is down 64 percent.

Fact:    Ethanol burns cleaner than gasoline.  According to the Argonne National Laboratory, corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 34 percent compared to gasoline.  If the oil industry wants to talk about the environment, let’s not forget the 1989 Exxon Valdez and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spills.

Critics also say the RFS is driving more acres into corn production.  In reality, the RFS is driving significant investment in higher-yielding, drought-resistant seed technology.  This is a win-win scenario to cultivate good-paying jobs and to harvest better yields on less land.

Fact:    The total cropland planted to corn in the United States is decreasing.  In 2013, U.S. farmers planted 97 million corn acres.  In the 1930s, farmers planted 103 million acres of corn.  Farmers have increased the corn harvest through higher yields, not more acres.

Critics contend the nation’s corn crop is diverted for fuel use at the expense of feed for livestock and higher prices at the grocery store.

Fact:    In reality, the value of corn increases during ethanol production.  One-third of the corn processed to make ethanol re-enters the marketplace as high value animal feed called dried distillers grain.  Livestock feed remains the largest end-user of corn.  When co-products such as dried distillers grains are factored in, ethanol consumes only 27 percent of the whole corn crop by volume; livestock feed uses 50 percent of the crop.

Fact:    The USDA Secretary has said farmers receive about 14 cents of every food dollar spent at the grocery store.  And, the farmer’s share of a $4 box of corn flakes is about 10 cents.

So what’s at stake when a coalition of special interests tag teams to pull the rug out from underneath the nation’s ethanol policy?

Unfortunately, these flawed attacks on ethanol and next-generation biofuels undermine America’s effort to move forward with an aggressive, diversified energy policy that takes into account global demand, geopolitics and U.S. economic growth.

posted by: Dennis Lowe 8 month(s) ago Comment On This Post


Veterans Day - GUEST COMMENTARY

Monday, Nov, 11 2013

Rep. Bruce Braley (IA-01) today released the following statement commemorating Veterans Day:

“Veterans Day is a day to honor and thank the brave men and women who have put their lives on the line for our country.  We are grateful for their sacrifice, service and their commitment to keeping America strong and secure.

"When my dad landed on Iwo Jima, the Marines packed into LST-808 fought as one, for their brothers and for us.  In that same spirit we as a nation should always remember that supporting our troops means standing up for them not only when they are fighting overseas, but long after they have come home."

posted by: Dennis Lowe 8 month(s) ago Comment On This Post


Veterans Day - GUEST COMMENTARY

Monday, Nov, 11 2013

Honoring our veterans and service members
by Iowa Sen. Jeff Danielson


November 11 is Veterans Day, a time to honor all American veterans, living and dead, for their service to our country.

Iowa is home to about 240,000 veterans. In recent years, record numbers of service members have returned to our state as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down.  We are grateful for the sacrifices of these men and women—and to thousands of others from previous conflicts.

Iowa is a national leader when it comes to supporting veterans.  Each year, we work to improve services at the state and county levels to help service members make a smooth transition back to civilian life.  Local veterans’ organizations tell us that education, job training and health care are among the essentials needed to welcome them home.

Over the years, we’ve boosted help for returning soldiers seeking a college degree or the skills to qualify for good jobs.  We’ve worked with employers to protect soldiers’ jobs while they’re serving overseas.  We’ve made it illegal to foreclose on the homes of active duty Iowa National Guard members.  And we’ve improved efforts to connect veterans to the help they need and the benefits they’ve earned.

This year, we continued Iowa’s strong track record of supporting and honoring our veterans, service members and their families by:

• Ensuring that those serving on active duty remain eligible to receive tuition assistance benefits and attend school once they return.

• Emphasizing the admission of homeless, honorably discharged veterans to the Iowa Veterans Home.

• Including a mental health treatment staff member on the care committee for patients at the Iowa Veterans Home.

• Providing care at the Iowa Veterans Home for Gold Star parents—that is any parent of a service member who died on active duty.

• Providing more than $12 million to train our service members and honor our veterans, including money for the Iowa Veterans Cemetery and the Iowa Veterans Oral History Project.

To learn more about the services and benefits available to Iowa veterans, go to https://va.iowa.gov.

posted by: Dennis Lowe 8 month(s) ago Comment On This Post


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