DES MOINES -- Trade and ethanol issues impacting Iowa agriculture, and an unresolved debate over the reauthorization of legislation designed to protect sexual assault victims are some of the issues that kept Iowa’s U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst busy in 2019.
Ernst, a Republican from Red Oak, discussed those issues during a year-end interview.
Perhaps no issues kept Ernst busier than trade and ethanol policy. She spent the year advocating for passage of the new trade deal between the U.S., Mexico and Canada, and lobbying the Environmental Protection Agency to fully execute the federal ethanol mandate.
The House this past Thursday passed the new trade agreement, which is known as USMCA and replaces the former North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. The Senate is expected to pass the new trade deal soon.
Mexico previously approved new trade deal, and Canada is expected to as well.
The USMCA languished for the year while Democrats sought stronger worker and environmental protections.
“We think it is wonderful,” Ernst said of the new trade deal. “We will get that done (in the Senate) and it will go to the president’s desk. So that’s a really great thing.”
President Donald Trump sought the new trade deal to replace NAFTA, which he often criticized.
The new deal took more than a year to be developed and earn Congressional approval. Ernst said although she would have preferred it be done sooner, she thinks it was worth the wait.
“In the ag space, this is a huge win for U.S. dairy --- and we do have dairy in Iowa --- really getting more of our product into Canada. So that’s just one example in the ag front,” Ernst said. “But then if you look overall at the agreement, it needed to be modernized. So now we are actually taking things into consideration like technology and intellectual property theft. ...
“If you think about it, when NAFTA was done (in 1994), heaven’s sakes, that was decades ago. And think about how technology and trading has changed through the years. This will modernize, make it better and safer for everyone.”
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While Ernst spent the year urging Democrats to sign the USMCA, she also spent it lobbying members of her own political party on ethanol policy.
Ethanol and biodiesel industry officials and their supporters in political office --- including Ernst --- have been critical of EPA actions that, those ethanol and biodiesel supporters say, undermine the federal ethanol mandate.
In particular, the EPA’s critics have been upset by the agency’s liberal use of waivers that exempt oil refineries from full participation in the ethanol mandate, creating less demand for ethanol.
Ernst, among many other Iowa elected officials, spent the year urging EPA leaders, high-ranking officials in the Trump administration and the president himself to uphold the spirit of the ethanol mandate.
The final package of rules left industry officials and advocates unsatisfied. The program still pledges 15 billion gallons of ethanol will be blended into the nation’s fuel supply, as decreed by the law. But the EPA was granted flexibility in accounting for the waivers, and ethanol advocates say the agency cannot be trusted to fulfill the mandate’s obligations.
“After shaking hands in the Oval Office this fall, EPA had an opportunity to restore the broken trust of farmers and to follow through on the president’s commitment, but it appears they’ve missed the mark ... again,” Ernst said in a statement after the rules were finalized.
During the interview, Ernst said she had received assurances from Trump and other high-ranking administration officials that the 15 billion gallon mandate will be honored.
“We’ve advised them the best we can on how to get there. The EPA has taken a little different turn,” Ernst said.
Ernst also found herself in a partisan squabble over reauthorization of legislation that offers protections and services for victims of sexual violence. A key hang-up is over Democrats’ desire to include a provision that would prohibit dating partners convicted of domestic violence from possessing a gun. The provision is commonly called “the boyfriend loophole.”
The National Rifle Association said it opposes the provision.
Ernst said she still hopes to find bipartisan consensus on the bill, and said she continues to work with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, of California, the top Democrat working on the bill.
“I am still hoping to get this done. Obviously it’s not going to happen this year,” Ernst said. “Dianne Feinstein still wants to work with me on this. ... So we’re still working through these issues.”