As the national debt grows larger and larger, our lawmakers continue to spend obliviously—and even on frivolous things. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, is not happy about how much government agencies are spending on swag, and she recently introduced legislation to end things like the government spending over $600,000 on coloring books. Read a lightly edited transcript of the interview, posted below, or listen on the podcast:
We also cover the following stories:
- Two Democrats buck the party line and do not vote for the impeachment resolution.
- A National Security Council official who heard the Ukraine call told House members, “I want to be clear, I was not concerned that anything illegal was discussed.”
- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi addresses the resignation of Rep. Katie Hill.
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Rachel del Guidice: We are joined today on The Daily Signal Podcast by Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa. Sen. Ernst, thank you so much for being with us today.
Sen. Joni Ernst: Oh, it’s a pleasure. Thank you, Rachel.
del Guidice: So, you’ve had a busy week. Yesterday, you introduced legislation called the SWAG Act that ends taxpayer-funded trinkets and mascots that these agencies produced. Can you start off by telling us about this legislation and why it’s needed?
Ernst: You bet. The SWAG Act, S-W-A-G is Stop Wasteful Advertising by the Government Act. And what we have found just in our research is that the federal government spends over $1.4 billion … on public relations and advertising campaigns. And what’s really sad about that is that’s over twice the amount of what the federal government dedicates for breast cancer research.
And that $1.4 billion is purchasing things like special made costumes as mascots for our different federal agencies. We’re buying key chains, we’re buying all kinds of little gadgets, koozies, Snuggies, and we’ve spent over $600,000 on coloring books.
del Guidice: That’s kind of ridiculous. …
Ernst: It is. It’s beyond ridiculous. What is it that the federal government should be doing and how should we use our taxpayer dollars? I would say coloring books and key chains [are] probably not a priority within the federal government. Certainly, they play a role in private industry, but for the federal government, no, we really need to either save those taxpayer dollars, keep them in taxpayers’ pockets, or be using them for the right reasons in the federal government.
So what the bill would do [is] it would prevent those federal agencies from spending that type of money on advertising and little gadgets just to give away.
del Guidice: So the government’s fiscal year just ended on Sept. 30. And going into that time, you had introduced legislation called the End-of-Year Fiscal Responsibility Act to basically address all of this end-of-year spending that we see agencies taking on and … trying to use up leftover funds.
Why do you see this legislation as needed and what are some of the harmful last-minute spending sprees that you’ve seen agencies take part in?
Ernst: Yeah, exactly. And at the end of the fiscal year, we say this all the time, it’s binge-buying bureaucrats that are out there spending all those dollars on things their departments don’t really need. Because at the end of the fiscal year, that money goes away and you start into a new fiscal year, so they try and spend it on odds and ends.
We’ve seen them spend it on lobster tails, candy, booze, all of those things that they don’t really need in their departments.
So again, it’s not being used wisely. And you know what? If you don’t need it, then let’s not waste those taxpayer dollars.
The bill that I’ve introduced, it would prohibit the federal government and those agencies from overspending. They’d be held to the average of what was spent in the last two months of the year. It would be the average of the previous 10 months of that fiscal year is what they would be held to.
del Guidice: What should the American people know about spending, even how much we’re spending now? I think the national debt … just hit $23 trillion, if I’m correct. And why is this an issue that you’re so passionate about?
Ernst: Well, if you look at it and you divide that amongst every person across the United States, our share of the debt, it’s well over $60,000 a person and that is significant.
Businesses can’t run like that. I know back in Iowa, our counties can’t run like that. Our cities can’t run like that. They have to have balanced budgets. Our state certainly doesn’t run like that. Our federal government shouldn’t either.
We expect our taxpayers to support the things that the federal government is charged with doing through the Constitution. But there’s a lot of other things that we purchase and we do that really aren’t any benefit to our taxpayers. And those are the things that we really need to watch. So I am passionate about it. I don’t want to be spending money needlessly and then pass that on to my daughter, grandchildren. You can see the pattern.
del Guidice: Do you think Washington will ever change its spending habits or do you think this is something that we’re just going to see, a cycle repeating itself?
Ernst: I think we are trapped in a very dangerous cycle and the only way I see Congress changing its behavior is if we’re forced to change that behavior. And my colleagues and I have worked very closely with [Sens.] James Lankford and David Perdue on a number of these issues. And a number of us have come together.
We’ve sponsored bills like [the] No Budget, No Pay [Act]; No Budget, No Recess [Act]; all of those things to force Congress to change the way they do business when it comes to budgeting and appropriations.
del Guidice: So before coming to Congress, you served as an auditor in Montgomery County in Iowa. And how did what you saw there on a small, local level inform your opinion now about what you’re experiencing and witnessing now on such a much larger level?
Ernst: Absolutely. I started in the county auditor’s office in Montgomery County as the auditor and just observing the pattern of behavior in my county-level departments.
Great people, but they were always afraid at the end of the fiscal year, if I don’t spend that money, I won’t get it when I request dollars for the next year. So they would spend it out and I saw those same behaviors at the county level, but trying to break them of that habit.
Make sure you’re budgeting appropriately. Make sure you’re not asking for things that the department doesn’t need. I come from a fiscally-challenged area, so making sure that we’re doing the absolute best we could for our taxpayers was really important. And it was those same thoughts that I took on when I went into the State Senate as well. And now that I’m in the federal government, cutting waste is a really big priority for me.
del Guidice: On the county level, and I’ve heard this from friends and even I have some family who work in county and state government, did you see a lot more concern … when it came to waste versus here now in D.C. where it’s a different ballgame?
Ernst: Absolutely. And it’s because when you’re at that local level, you’re interacting with those people every single day. And one of the things I really loved about being a county auditor was the fact that my constituents could walk right [up to] the counter at the auditor’s office, look me in the eyes sitting at my desk behind that counter, and say, “Joni, you need to explain to me what this expenditure was for.” So we’re accountable.
I think that people at the federal level, they’re that much further removed from the people they represent. And so, maybe they don’t feel those same pressures as folks at the local level do. But certainly when you’re spending money that is coming from your neighbors, the folks you go to church with, it really makes a difference.
del Guidice: The last time lawmakers passed all 12 spending bills I think was in 1996 and Congress has pretty much since then been passing last-minute omnibus bills and other appropriations bills, wasting money at the last minute and coupling things altogether.
What do you think of the status quo we’ve seen on this and what changes would you like to see if we could have changes?
Ernst: Absolutely. And I went to [Senate Majority] Leader [Mitch] McConnell. This was a couple years ago when we were passing the Bipartisan Budget Act. And within that act we had set forward a joint select committee. And I asked Leader McConnell to be on that joint select committee, which would be charged with finding a different way of doing budgets and appropriations. We really needed to reform the process.
And he said, “Wow, normally people don’t come asking to be on these types of committees.” But he did assign Roy Blunt of Missouri, James Lankford of Oklahoma, and David Perdue of Georgia. And I did serve on that committee. We worked diligently for a year. But overall, we couldn’t come up with an idea that the majority of that joint select committee could get on board with.
So a couple of the ideas that I’ve already discussed—of course, No Budget, No Pay; No Budget, No Recess; looking at changing the calendar on what our fiscal calendar would be.
There were a lot of ideas that were suggested, but again, we just couldn’t move forward with anything that the majority of the select committee could agree on. And unfortunately, there were so many people that were charged with making reforms that thought that what we were doing right now is absolutely OK. And it’s not OK. So we’ve got to challenge them and change our behaviors.
del Guidice: Because lawmakers, at least some of them, seem to be so OK with the status quo, what do you think needs to happen on both sides of the aisle for Congress and the Senate to actually pass a budget rather than last-minute legislation all the time?
Ernst: Well, I do think it comes down to repercussions to the members. And that’s why we felt that those bills, whether it’s No Budget, No Pay; No Budget, No Recess, it would hold us accountable. But evidently, the majority of senators and congressmen don’t want to be held accountable because they wouldn’t support those measures. So we have to be held accountable. It will be the people that hold us accountable.
del Guidice: So you’ve had a very busy month. Aside from all the last-minute spending legislation stuff you’ve been working on, you also recently released legislation called the CREEPS Act to address sexual violence.
So, I wanted to hear from you about this legislation. You mentioned your own personal experience as a sexual violence survivor and why you think this legislation is needed. So I’s also love to hear about that.
Ernst: You bet, and this should be so common sense. And I had someone, when I introduced the creeps bill, this gentleman, he said, “You would think you wouldn’t have to legislate on this.” But what the bill does is it would mandate that someone who has been found guilty, not just accused, but found guilty of sexual assault, they would lose their job as a federal employee.
We should not tolerate sexual abuse, whether it’s harassment or sexual assault. We shouldn’t tolerate it on our campuses, in our military, anywhere in society, most certainly not in the federal government.
del Guidice: You also were back in Iowa recently and you’re wrapping up your 99-county tour that you do each year. Can you tell us about that? What it is, and what do you do?
Ernst: It is the best tour ever and the tradition [was] started many, many years ago by Sen. Chuck Grassley. And I’ve taken on that tradition as well. So I will be wrapping up my … 99-county tour here this week and I will have done 35 town halls across the state of Iowa this year alone. And we’ll have visited all 99 counties in this year. So, it’s really great to get out and visit with the people of Iowa.
I go out to them, they don’t have to come out to me. I go out to them. So whether they’re on the farm, whether they are at a rural hospital, whether they’re greeting me at a town hall, whether I’m going to an elementary school to talk to teachers and students, whatever it is, I learned so much about my own state.
I think that that’s really important in representing my beautiful state of Iowa is to get out, know the people, understand their challenges, be able to formulate those solutions, and bring them back to Washington, D.C. That’s why they sent me, to take their challenges and provide them with a voice in those areas.
But it’s so much fun. I visited the Empty Nest Winery not all that long ago at Waukon and it was great. A bunch of constituents from the area came out and we were able to learn about this family business and how they converted their farm to a winery. And it was just a very fun stop that Friday evening right before their football game. [I] have also visited other manufacturers and it makes a difference.
Iowans are very proud of what they do and they’re proud of their families, their businesses, and they want to showcase those. So I’m glad to be able to do that. It’s a great experience.
del Guidice: That’s so incredible that you do that, actually taking time, going back to each county. That’s really awesome.
In your visits to all these different counties in Iowa, are there a couple issues that you hear from constituents where they kind of repeat themselves where these are like two or three top-of-mind issues that you’re hearing them wanting Congress to address?
Ernst: There are a number of issues that come up repeatedly. And the top two issues [are] trade, of course, … and our economy. Making sure the USMCA [United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement] gets over the finish line, making sure that we continue to work with China on a strong trade deal. … And then of course, the cost of pharmaceutical drugs, that’s one. Prescription drug prices come up a lot.
So health care is on Iowans’ minds and we want to make sure that we’re addressing the issues that they are bringing up consistently. Of course at the NOL is another hot topic and we hope that we’ve found a solution there. The president has really directed the EPA to move in the right direction. And that’s because we were able to take all those voices and concerns from Iowans and share them with the president. So it’s been an exciting process, a lot of fun, but Iowans, no matter what corner of the state they’re in, those are the top issues.
del Guidice: Well, Sen. Ernst, thank you so much for joining us today on The Daily Signal Podcast. And where can people follow your work if they want to? Even if they’re not from Iowa, if they want to jump on the bandwagon and get involved and watch what you’re doing.
Ernst: You bet. They can go to ernst.senate.gov and they can sign up for my newsletters. I send out a Squeal Award every so often. And folks can follow me there.
del Guidice: Awesome. Thank you so much for being with us today. Thank you. What a pleasure. Thanks so much.