With his customary pen and legal pad to take notes, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, listened to Hamilton County residents during a town hall meeting Tuesday morning in Webster City at the Hamilton County Extension Service office.
After a brief introduction, Grassley opened the floor for questions, which ranged from the federal deficit to the Farm Bill, the EPA and energy concerns, health care costs, First and Second Amendment rights and scandals brewing in Washington.
The Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 passed out of committee last week and will be considered if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, introduces it, announced Grassley.
Larry Miller, of Stanhope, and Doug Luppes, of Webster City, question Sen. Charles Grassley about First Amendment rights during a Town Hall meeting in Webster City on Tuesday morning at the Hamilton County Extension Office. The visit to Webster City was one of 99 visits to county seats that Sen. Grassley makes annually.
With $23 billon in savings, the proposed bill limits farm program payments to $50,000 for individuals and $100,000 for married couples, he said.
Grassley said the bill provides a safety net to small and medium producers to protect them in a volatile market. He said he hopes the bill will be addressed before the Aug. 5 recess.
"If it is not done by Aug. 5, there is a 50 - 50 chance that it won't get done," said the senator.
Grassley cited the political climate in Washington, D.C., and reported that Politico, an internet news website, claims that the White House is orchestrating all legislative action this session prior to the November election.
He said recent talking points concerning billionaires, a war on women and student loans as being political agenda rather than governing. The topics don't address all the issues on the mind of Iowans, he said.
"Maybe the White House doesn't consider farmers very important," said Grassley. He said that previously farm bills were passed with nonpartisan support because they were "for the good of the country."
Grassley rejected the "Do Nothing Congress" label. He claims the fault lies with President Barack Obama and with Reid, who Grassley said refuses to introduce bills in the Senate which have been approved in the House.
"The president has a big megaphone," said Grassley, who believes the president could coax through legislation if it came before the Senate.
Grassley said he believed that withholding bills from Senate consideration is a political strategy aimed to protect Democratic caucus members from casting unpopular votes which could jeopardize a seat.
"Sen. Reid doesn't want his members to take up tough votes," said Grassley.
Grassley said he applauded the Department of Labor's withdrawal of the child farm labor regulations.
"I think it had more to do with migrants than with family farms," said Grassley, who submitted a letter with 26 other senators who felt the regulations were "just stupid."
Addressing other subjects, Grassley said there are few changes to the crop insurance program which will operate under the 2008 budget which was cut by $2 billion.
Grassley addressed new estimates that Medicare will be defunct by 2024 if changes are not made. The shortfall was created when the Affordable Health Care Act, also known as Obamacare, was scored to be budget neutral in 2009. The action by the Obama administration carved out $530 billion from Medicare to achieve that benchmark, said Grassley.
"So three years later, we find out that Medicare is $340 billion in the hole," he said.
Grassley praised one of the few noncontroversial aspects of the health care act which requires hospitals to post charges so that consumers can compare pricing.
Asked why the Veterans Administration is allowed to negotiate prescription costs while Medicare Plan D is not, Grassley noted that the VA provides fewer drug varieties to patients and is then able to bargain for lower prices. But Medicare Plan D offers a greater prescription variety and has less ability to control the costs.
Grassley warned that consumers may be hurt by an aspect of the health care bill in which employers will pay a penalty fine rather than offer health care insurance to workers.
"Employers may opt for taking a penalty and send subscribers to the government exchange," said Grassley. He cited the error in Obama's promise that people could keep their health insurance under the government plan.
"This is the season for promises," said one audience member.
"Like the promises made in 2008 and not kept," said Grassley.
Asked about reigning in the power of the EPA and rising electrical costs due to the closing of coal plants, Grassley said that in hindsight, the Energy Act of 1990 gave the EPA too much power.
But Grassley said avenues of recourse to curtail that power include litigation, a congressional veto or placing a rider on the Appropriations bill which funds the EPA.
Grassley was questioned about First and Second Amendment Rights.
Asked about Freedom of Speech and the right of citizens to protest the government, a citizen felt boundaries for protecting the president were arbitrarily set. Regardless, Grassley said the Secret Service controls the security of the president and determines boundaries which need to be observed.
Pertaining to the right to bear arms, Grassley warned citizens not to confuse Second Amendment Rights with Fast and Furious.
The Fast and Furious program was designed so that U.S. guns crossing into Mexico were intended to create a backlash against the gun rights of U.S. citizens, said Grassley. The guns ended up in the hands of gang members and resulted in the death of one U.S. government agent.
Grassley cited the efforts of Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, to subpoena U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to testify. Issa has threatened to hold the attorney general in contempt if he does not comply.
The investigation has climbed the chain of command up to the assistant attorney general of the U.S., said Grassley.
"Either he is covering for Holder or he is not serving Holder well," said Grassley. "But the attorney general had guns under his control in his department and it is his responsibility."
The stonewalling of the White House has cast suspicion on the Obama administration, said Grassley.
"On Jan. 27, 2009, this president claimed he would be the most transparent administration and he stonewalls," said Grassley, whose initial request for information triggered the investigation.
Grassley assured citizens worried about losing Second Amendment rights that recent Supreme Court rulings have upheld those rights. In addition, politicians have determined that voters support gun ownership and so the push for gun control legislation has eased.
Regarding the Secret Service scandal where agents solicited prostitutes on a recent pre-presidential trip to Colombia, Grassley believed a thorough investigation was necessary.
"There has never been a dark cloud over the Secret Service except of course in the incident with Lincoln," said Grassley, citing the agent responsible for guarding President Lincoln that fateful night at Ford's Theatre. The agent left his post and stepped out for a drink, with tragic results.
Although the president said the actions were limited to a couple "knuckleheads," subsequent investigations have revealed incidents in Argentina, El Salvador and Moscow, said Grassley. He noted that investigations during the 1970s showed that prostitutes were involved in espionage aimed at the US.
Asked about the lack of funding for locks and dams, Grassley said that some government officials have a philosophical opposition to harnessing rivers.
Calling himself the "Father of the Wind Energy Tax Credit," Grassley said that he doesn't expect any legislation will be passed on wind energy before November. The delay will result in an estimated 4,000 layoffs in the Iowa wind energy industry, he said.
Without Congressional action, wind turbine production will cease. So the senator said he intends to ask for a two year extension of funding in hopes to keep wind energy viable. The biggest challenge will be to find the $5 billion to offset the cost, he added.
Grassley noted that while the tax credit for ethanol will expire, renewable fuels such as cellulosic ethanol are still in play.
Regarding the plight of the U.S. Post Office, the Senate passed a bill last week which will take money from the overpaid postal employee retirement fund to help fund operations and finance employee buyouts, the senator explained.
In regards to the federal budget, Grassley felt Reid's refusal to allow discussion of Rep. Paul Ryan's, R-Wisconsin, budget plan in the Senate was "a crime."
While Obama's proposed budget is at $9 trillion, Ryan's budget was $5 trillion.
"It seems intellectually dishonest for the president to oppose the Ryan budget,"?he said.
Speaking on the anniversary of the killing of Osama Bin Liden, Grassley said the country is safer than it was on 9/11 and that local police and law enforcement are doing a better job to safeguard the public.