The Biden administration’s reported decision to hold America’s defense budget flat for the next fiscal year is concerning, Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, says.
Ernst served in the U.S. military for more than 23 years before becoming a senator. Today, as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Ernst is committed to promoting policies that strengthen the nation’s military.
The Iowa Republican, who in November won reelection to a second term, joins the “Problematic Women” podcast to discuss America’s military readiness and what’s happening at America’s southern border.
Also on today’s show, Kelsey Bolar, a senior policy analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum, joins the show to discuss a brand new Daily Signal documentary she is producing.
And as always, we’ll be crowning our “Problematic Woman of the Week.”
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Virginia Allen: I am so pleased to be joined this morning by Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa. Senator, welcome to the show.
Sen. Joni Ernst: Thank you, Virginia. Great to be with you.
Allen: So, I want to begin by talking a little bit about your story before becoming a senator. You actually served in the military for over 23 years. What was that driving force that made you decide, “I want to serve my country by serving in the military”?
Ernst: Well, I have always appreciated folks that engaged in public service, and this was one way that I could give back to my communities, to my state.
I served in the Army Reserves for a number of years and finished out my career in the Iowa Army National Guard. I deployed overseas as a company commander leading 150 soldiers in Operation Iraqi Freedom, toward the end of my career, then was a battalion commander.
I really enjoyed it but, again, just to be able to serve my country, serve my community, and my state was very, very important to me.
Allen: How do you feel like that military service has affected the way that you lead as a senator?
Ernst: Well, I would say that it has made me tougher maybe than most senators that might get a little prickly at any sort of situation. I think by serving in the military, you are faced with a number of very stressful situations, situations that could be, especially during a time of war, life or death.
So, understanding the gravity, the weight of those decisions, and having that experience before I came into the United States Senate has really been very, very beneficial to me.
I’ve developed a lot of scar tissue over the years from all the different activities through the military, and it just made me a much tougher person in the United States Senate—knowing when to stand up and fight, and when to try and find different types of solutions.
Allen: That’s so critical. Well, you are a member of the Armed Services Committee, and you recently co-authored a piece for The Hill talking about the Biden administration’s decision to hold America’s defense budget flat for the next fiscal year. Why does this concern you?
Ernst: Well, this does concern me, and it should concern every American as well. Our federal government is charged with the national security, the protection of our citizens. That is No. 1, and so it is very concerning that President [Joe] Biden would want to keep our defense budget flat, especially, at a time when we are trying to make up, build up our military after years and years of neglect during the Obama administration.
Just keeping up with normal maintenance activities is so important, and the military was barely able to do that during Obama’s tenure.
We really have to play catch up now, and we’re recommending, of course, with [The Heritage Foundation], a 3% to 5% over inflation to catch up and get where we need to be in order to compete with our near-peer adversaries, communist China, Russia, Iran, North Korea.
We need to be able to engage in a space and outpace our competitors, and we can’t do that with a flat defense budget.
Allen: Talk a little bit more about America’s military readiness compared with nations like China. Because I recently learned some facts about that, and I was a little bit interested, I think, as an American, we automatically assume that our military readiness is probably No. 1, and it’s a little bit discouraging actually to find out where we fall.
Ernst: It is. It is discouraging, and again, this is why we cannot have a flat defense budget. Just, comparatively, Russia is very focused on the Arctic, and icebreakers and they have many, many icebreakers. The United States, we’re just really starting to invest in that part of the globe.
Then, for China, rapidly building up a naval fleet that will rival any of their competitors. And trying to keep up, we need to be able to produce ships. We need to have the defense budget to support that and push them out.
Then in areas that most Americans don’t think about, artificial intelligence, hypersonics, all of that is very, very important. But it takes research dollars in order for us to get there and compete with those near-peer adversaries.
In some of those areas, they are outpacing us. That is absolutely unacceptable.
Allen: What is your message to the Biden administration?
Ernst: My message to the Biden administration is to rely on those military experts. Please lean on the Pentagon to figure out how we can be competitive in this space.
It doesn’t mean that the Pentagon should get a pass when it comes to things like transparency, and of course, managing your budget well. That is absolutely necessary, but at the same time, we need to have the budget that will allow us to push dollars into research and development so that we can be that outpacing nation, rather than just barely trying to keep up with our adversaries.
We need to invest. We need to invest wisely, make smart decisions on the areas where we can move forward. Figure out some of the outdated legacy programs that are not getting us where we need to be in this global space.
Those can go by the wayside, but we really do need to invest in the new technologies in order to keep up.
Allen: Yeah. Well, one of the other areas, and I know many Americans are concerned about right now, is what’s happening on our southern border.
The White House has finally admitted that we do have a crisis on our southern border. Thousands of immigrants are arriving at the border daily now. How is the Biden administration handling the situation at the border?
Ernst: The Biden administration is not handling the crisis at the border, and that is very unfortunate, where they have rolled back through executive action, a number of the policies that were put into place by the Trump administration, and policies that were working.
Policies such as requiring individuals seeking asylum to apply in their home country. Keep them there, or don’t let them make that dangerous journey to our southern border. Pushing back on those that are bringing children into the country, and then just releasing them to our interior.
All of those policies have been rolled back under President Joe Biden, and unfortunately, that is encouraging the massive flow of migrants that we see right now.
They are not handling it well, but what they could do is, again, put in place a number of the measures that they’ve already rolled back. We know we need to focus on reforming immigration and immigration policy. That’s important to all of us, but simply giving a free pass to anyone that crosses the border is not the right approach.
We need to make sure that we’re securing the border properly, vetting those that are coming into the United States, and making sure that it is for the benefit of our states and our nation.
Allen: You say that it was unlawful for President Biden to suspend construction of the border wall. Why do you feel like that was an unlawful action?
Ernst: That was approved by Congress, and the president does not have the ability to stop projects that are authorized and approved by Congress. The dollars were there, the dollars were being spent on these southern border projects.
The president just can’t roll into office and decide, “I’m going to undo what Congress did.” He does not have the authority to do that. I do believe that was an illegal action.
Allen: Let’s chat a little bit about your role on the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee. Small businesses in Iowa and across the country are working hard right now to recover from the pandemic.
How are you working to support small businesses in your own home state?
Ernst: Yes, and in Iowa, of course, about 98%, 99% of our employers are small businesses. It is really important, and we see this in many other states as well that we really need to reach out and support those small businesses.
They’ve suffered tremendously through COVID-19. On that Small Business Committee, of course, one of the most important programs that we were able to really push out to those small businesses was the Paycheck Protection Program. It has been wildly successful, especially, in the state of Iowa.
What we are focusing on now is reforming some of the ways that we did business previously within the Paycheck Protection Program. One of the initiatives that I have, a correction I would like to see, of course, is the Schedule C and Schedule F filers are able to use the gross amount of income, rather than net income, to calculate their loan amounts.
This would provide a greater opportunity for those small businesses. Even if they had used the loan program in the past, we would like to make that correction so that they can go back, file differently, and hopefully, get a little bit larger loan amount.
I’ve seen loan amounts as small as $80, and that really doesn’t get you very far. We really do need to go back and make a correction.
Allen: Yeah, $80, that does very little for a small business owner. Wow. Now, why are small businesses such a critical part of a free and fair society?
Ernst: Well, it is important because it allows those that have ideas and want to turn those into opportunities, it allows them to engage in entrepreneurship and really determine their own destiny.
We have so many people that really have phenomenal ideas. They have hopes and dreams. They want to be their own boss, and believe me, they are the economic engines out there creating jobs across the board, not only for themselves providing income for their families, but then as they can grow and expand, providing opportunity for others to be employed at their small businesses as well.
We find that small businesses can be very flexible also, which is really important, especially, to some employees that maybe have young families or so forth. But we really need to make sure that we are protecting our small businesses.
It’s the epitome of the American dream to be able to own and operate your own business. That’s why I’m so glad that Iowans are heavily invested in small business.
Allen: Yeah, that really is so, so critical. Now, Senator, this is sort of a fun, lighter question. If you could go back in time, and if you could give your 25-year-old or your 30-year-old self a piece of advice, what would that be?
Ernst: There’s a lot I have learned over the past couple of decades that I would love … to give to my 25- or 30-year-old self. But I think, primarily, it would be just to trust your gut, trust your instinct, and know that you are really a subject matter expert in the things that you’re passionate about.
Just don’t question yourself. I’ve done that so many times through my career where I stop, and I’m, like, “My first instinct is to do A, B, C, but everybody else is saying maybe we should do X, Y, Z.” Well, then after doing X, Y, Z, you find out you really should have gone with A, B, C.
I would say trust your gut, know that your instinct is right, and it will carry you through. Just drive on. Do the right thing. Do what’s appropriate for you.
Allen: That’s wisdom. I love that because we all have a tendency to do that, don’t we? To second-guess ourselves. And it’s usually that first instinct that is the right answer.
Senator, final question before we let you go. We love to ask all of our guests on this show whether or not they consider themselves a feminist. We get so many different answers and responses, but do you consider yourself a feminist, and why or why not?
Ernst: Yeah, I guess I do, but I don’t know what a typical definition of a feminist is. To me, especially, as we talk about what’s a woman’s role out there?
Well, I do believe that women can compete with men, whether it is in private companies, whether it is in the military, whether it is in government service, elected office, I think women can do all of those things.
So often during my first campaign for United States Senate, it was pointed out that, “Oh, women’s issues, you should focus on women’s issues.” I was, like, “Women’s issues, you mean like national defense and the economy? Those are women’s issues.”
I guess feminist, it depends on what the definition is. But, to me, it just is really allowing women to choose their own path. If you want to be a homemaker, for heaven’s sakes, be a homemaker. If you want to be a CEO, for heaven’s sakes, be a CEO.
We can compete no matter what it is, but I think women have all kinds of paths and careers that we can choose from. We have all kinds of different ideas, and if that’s what a feminist is, I guess I would say I’m a feminist.
Allen: Great answer. I love it. Senator, thank you so much for your time. We really, really appreciate you joining us today.
Ernst: Well, thanks, Virginia. This was a lot of fun. I really appreciate it. God bless you.