D.C. Dispatch: Democrats shift focus to voting rights

Iowa’s delegation uses the new year to reflect on legislative wins from 2021

By: - January 7, 2022 1:41 pm

(Photo by Russ Rohde/Getty Images)

It’s the first week of 2022 and national politics are off to a (relatively) quiet start. Iowa’s D.C. delegation reflected on the events on Jan. 6, 2021 and everything that’s happened since. Meanwhile, Democratic leaders in D.C. shifted their focus from the spending bill to other priorities.

Senate turns attention to voting rights, filibuster

Congress ended 2021 in a stalemate. The “Build Back Better” Act, a $1.75 trillion bill spending bill over the next 10 years, passed the House, but faced opposition from a few Senate moderates. 

Lawmakers returned for the new year and put the spending bill on the back burner, instead turning focus to voting rights legislation ahead of the 2022 midterms. But that presents its own challenges: Democrats would likely need to change the filibuster to get any legislation to the finish line.

Rep. Cindy Axne, Iowa’s only Democrat in D.C., told reporters Wednesday that Build Back Better was “alive and well,” despite the pause.

“Unless we get the voting rights bills passed, we’re going to see gerrymandering and voting suppression tactics influence this next election,” Axne said.

Who gets the money from the infrastructure bill?

Axne met with over a dozen Iowa mayors and local leaders Wednesday to discuss federal infrastructure money. She highlighted new funding available for broadband, road repairs, public transportation, climate and cybersecurity.

Axne encouraged the local leaders to reach out to state agencies, like the Department of Transportation, and ask for the federal funding coming to the state. About $5 billion will be available for Iowa projects. 

“That’s your responsibility,” she told a room of masked officials. “You have to go after the funding to get it.”

Officials raised concerns that smaller towns or newer cities without “legacy problems” may have difficulties accessing the federal dollars, especially in competition with larger municipalities.

“We don’t have the resources to go after the grants and compete against some of the other towns,” said Stephanie Herbold, city clerk for Runnells. 

Runnells, a 500-person town on the outskirts of the Des Moines metro, needs to renovate its wastewater plant, city officials told Axne. The upgrades cost $5 million – a big ask for the small town.

“I know there’s big problems across the state, but I’m here to point out my big problem,” Herbold said.

Axne acknowledged the challenge and promised to sit down with leaders of small communities to help out, and Axne’s staff promoted webinars about the funding stream. She also praised larger towns for collaborating on projects that could benefit the whole area.

Grassley: Beef producers are ‘getting screwed by the packers’

Sen. Chuck Grassley reiterated his support for smaller, independent beef producers this week on the heels of a White House plan to boost competition in the meatpacking industry.

“The president is right that something needs to be done when it comes to packers,” Grassley said Wednesday. “We need to get a fair market for independent cattle producers.”

 He said four companies purchase about 85% of the nation’s cattle and suspects some of their actions might run afoul of anticompetition regulations to the detriment of beef producers.

 Grassley and three other senators — Deb Fischer, R-Nebraska, Jon Tester, D-Montana, and Ron Wyden, D-Oregon — announced their Cattle Market Price Discovery and Transparency bill in November. It would establish regional mandatory minimum prices for cattle based on average trade and require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to maintain a public library of marketing contracts between cattle producers and packers, among other requirements.

 “The independent producers and the consumer are getting screwed by the packers,” Grassley said.

Supreme Court hears vaccine mandate arguments

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Friday on federal vaccine mandates for employees at large companies and health care facilities. The New York Times reported justices seemed split along partisan lines, with the conservative majority skeptical that the mandates were legal.

Republican leaders in Iowa said this week they are waiting for court decisions on employer mandates before taking the next step legislatively. 

“We already acted, like we said, and made sure we addressed as much as we could when it came to the exemptions,” House Speaker Pat Grassley said. “But I also think that the Legislature shouldn’t try to get in front and complicate these court cases.”

A legislative holiday card

Iowa’s delegation ended the year with roundups of their legislative successes in 2021. Here’s what they highlighted:

Sen. Joni Ernst recalled her campaign to build a War on Terrorism memorial on the national mall and ongoing efforts to support veterans and farmers. She promised to “continue fighting tooth and nail for our values and to deliver for Iowa.”

Grassley released a 40-page review of his 2021 work online. In his first “Capitol Hill Report” of the new year, Grassley promised to continue pushing for lower drug prices, fair cattle prices and criminal justice reform in 2022. “My job is to work hard for Iowans, and I’ve got a lot to do for Iowans in 2022,” he said.

Axne pointed to Democratic wins in 2021, like COVID-19 relief legislation and the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and over $100 million in grant funding funneled to the 3rd District. “I’m so thankful for everyone I met this year… Those interactions help me do my job better,” she said.

Rep. Randy Feenstra touted his bipartisan bills on derecho aid, STEM funding and research on efficient farming practices. “While passing legislation as a member of the minority party can be challenging, I am pleased with the results we were able to deliver in 2021,” he said.

Rep. Ashley Hinson also focused on bipartisan bills signed into law, including the Sergeant Ketchum Rural Veterans Mental Health Act. All members of Iowa’s delegation worked on this law, named for an Iowa veteran who was denied care. The law will increase mental health care access for rural veterans. “We’re just getting started–I can’t wait to see what next year has in store,” Hinson said.

Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks recalled her travels around the 2nd District (the boundaries of which changed this year). “I have been fortunate to meet with farmers, students, entrepreneurs, health care workers, teachers, working parents, veterans, and so many more amazing Iowans about what I can do to make their lives easier,” she said.

— Jared Strong contributed to this article.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.