July 25, 2014

Braley criticized for missing House VA Committee hearings

Republicans have been criticizing Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley for missing most of the hearings the Veterans Affairs Committee held when Braley was on the panel. Now, a national group is spending $2.4 million to air that complaint in ads on Iowa TV stations.

Congressman Braley, the Democratic Party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate this year, attended five of the 19 House Veterans Affairs Committee hearings held during the two years Braley was on the committee. The ad from “Concerned Veterans for America” says Braley “skipped an astonishing” number of hearings. Dan Caldwell, a former Marine who is the group’s legislative campaign manager, says Braley was absent or “AWOL” in 2011 and 2012 when veterans needed him most.

“He neglected his responsibilities as a member of the VA Committee and it was quite (clear) these responsibilities were a low priority to him,” Caldwell says.

The ad mentions one particular hearing Braley did not attend which focused on the long-wait times for veterans seeking care in the VA system as well as bonuses being paid to some executives in the Veterans Administration.

“The VA Committee…has been very proactive in flushing out a lot of these problems with the VA and Congressman Braley obviously neglected his duties as a member of the full committee and that, in our mind, is unacceptable,” Caldwell says.

The Concerned Veterans for America ad asserts Braley was too busy attending three different fundraisers on September 20, 2012, to go to that particular V-A Committee hearing. Braley’s staff says Braley was not at a fundraiser, but attended a House Oversight Committee hearing instead, an assertion Caldwell disputes.

“In that hearing he offered no testimony, there are no recorded remarks,” Caldwell says. “…What it looks like he did was show up briefly, got recorded attending and then left.”

Democrats charge “Concerned Veterans for America” is mainly financed by the Koch brothers, businessmen who have donated millions of dollars to conservative candidates and causes.

State Representative Todd Prichard, a Democrat from Charles City who is a major in the Iowa National Guard, defends Braley.

“It’s about getting results for the people you represent and it’s about taking care of those people back home and that’s what Bruce did,” Prichard says. “That’s what he did for the people I served with.”

Prichard’s guard unit served 17 straight months in Iraq, but when the soldiers returned in 2007 they were declared ineligible for military education benefits. They were also denied combat pay.

“Things that were promised to us that weren’t really delivered,” Prichard says. “But Bruce was able to work to get us kind of what we had coming for the service.”

Prichard also cites Braley’s work to extend another federal law that offers grants to returning soldiers with disabilities, so they can retrofit their homes.

“That’s how I know Bruce, as a champion and somebody who’s going to go to bat for veterans ’cause that’s what he’s done for me and the people I served with,” Prichard says.

As for the attendance issue in D.C., Braley’s staff says the congressman attended 15 of the 17 hearings held by the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee he was assigned to, so Braley’s overall attendance record for committee and subcommittee hearings was above 50 percent.

Attendance records were an issue in the U.S. Senate race earlier this year. Joni Ernst, who won the GOP’s U.S. Senate nomination in June, was criticized by one of her Republican opponents for missing about 40 percent of the votes taken in the Iowa Senate in the 2014 legislative session. Ernst is a state senator and an Iowa National Guard unit commander. A Cedar Rapids Gazette analysis concluded about 10 percent of the state senate votes she missed where taken while she was on active duty. The other 90 percent were missed because Ernst was out campaigning for the U.S. Senate.

Appel calls for freeze on congressional pay

Staci Appel – the Democratic candidate in Iowa’s third congressional district — is promoting what she calls a “no perks pledge.”

“You know, we’re all frustrated with congress and it’s got absolutely nothing done, but it’s found time to enjoy a long list of perks funded by taxpayers,” Appel says.

Appel is citing several “perks” she’d refuse if she’s elected to the U.S. House. Appel says she’d vote to freeze congressional pay until congress raises the minimum wage and passes another measure to ensure women are paid the same rate as men get for the same job.

“I think it’s about priorities,” Appel says. “…I don’t believe members of congress should get a raise until every Iowan is getting a fair shot at getting ahead.”

Appel also objects to politicians who’ve left congress for a job as a D.C. lobbyist, but collect their congressional pension while they’re being paid to lobby congress.

“I think it’s called double-dipping,” Appel says. “It’s one of those things you shouldn’t do with chips and dip and you definitely shouldn’t do it with our taxpayer money.”

Appel would also vote to expand the waiting period before congressional staff can work for a lobbying firm. The “cooling off period” is now one-year. Appel says it should be two years. Appel outlined her ideas today during a speech in Des Moines and she challenged her Republican opponent, David Young, to agree to take the same anti-perk positions.

A spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee issued a written statement this afternoon.

“Staci Appel was voted out of office because she supported wasteful spending during her term in the Iowa Senate, including $80,000 to fix a pipe organ and more taxpayer dollars to pay for decorative flower pots,” NRCC spokesman Tyler Q. Houlton said.

Appel served one term in the state senate.

(This post was updated at 3:58 p.m. with additional information.)

Senator Harkin says Senator Grassley is ‘wrong’ on undocumented children issue

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley blasts the Obama administration for not telling state officials about dozens of Central American children being placed in Iowa after entering the U.S. illegally. Grassley, a Republican, says the feds were wrong to put the 139 children in Iowa homes without giving the state a heads-up to provide health care, mental health care and other state services.

Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat, disagrees. “My colleague is just wrong in saying that somehow we ought to let everyone know where these kids are, who they are,” Harkin says. “That is wrong.” Harkin says the operation was kept secret for a reason as there have been angry protests in other U.S. cities along the Mexican border which likely traumatized the already-frightened children. “These kids need to be protected, housed and kept safe,” Harkin says. “They don’t need to be made public objects where perhaps people can go out and picket a house. Maybe some family has taken in two or three of these kids to feed them and keep them safe. This is a humanitarian gesture.”

Reports say as many as 57,000 children from Central American nations have entered the U.S., undocumented and unaccompanied, since last fall. Earlier this week, Governor Branstad said he didn’t want the children brought to Iowa, calling them “lawbreakers.” Again, Harkin disagrees: “There’s a reason for the privacy, there’s a reason to protect these kids,” Harkin says. “Keep in mind, these kids are not criminals, they’re refugees. They’re kids that are escaping murder and violence and rape and all kinds of bad things.”

The children deserve due process, Harkin says, and it needs to be determined if they qualify for asylum. “I just met yesterday with the ambassadors of all three countries, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala,” Harkin says. “Things are now being put in place to help stem the exodus of these kids from those three countries.” Grassley is quoted as saying the cost to taxpayers to care for the children could be as much as one-thousand dollars per day.


Advocates press for another extension of unemployment benefits

A key labor group and two liberal advocacy groups organized a news conference today featuring an Iowan who lost his job three years ago. The groups hope by highlighting the plight of Bob Shultis, they’ll be able to increase public pressure on congress to again extend the number of weeks laid off workers can receive unemployment benefits.

Shultis was laid off in June 2011 from Clipper Wind Power in Cedar Rapids and he finally found a full-time job for roughly the same kind of salary this April.

“I applied for more than 200 jobs during that period,” he said. “No satisfactory offers. I did have jobs during those times. I did not turn down work, but the jobs were not good fits for my skill sets and also didn’t compensate me sufficiently to be able to support my family.”

Shultis said it was “degrading” to have to make a claim for unemployment benefits, but he disputes those who say extending the number of weeks out-of-work Americans can get unemployment checks will encourage those Americans to stay out of the workforce.

“The unemployment wasn’t even enough to make our house payment, let along provide food, clothing, medical care,” Shultis said. “That all came from my savings and thank God I invested well or we wouldn’t have made it. We would have been out on the street and homeless, there’s no doubt.”

Shultis was among those who were cut off from unemployment at the beginning of the year when congress failed to keep extended unemployment benefits in place. In 2008, Congress voted to make checks available for up to 99 weeks. Last year, lawmakers cut that to 73 weeks and then on January 1st unemployed workers became eligible for 26 weeks of benefits. Advocates for extending unemployment benefits are holding events across the country every Wednesday to call attention to the issue.

Iowa GOP had just $11,219 cash in the bank on June 30

The Iowa Republican Party’s finances took a nose-dive during the last quarter, nearly reaching red ink.

The Iowa GOP was already significantly trailing Iowa Democrats in fundraising when Danny Carroll was elected chairman of the party in late March. By the end of June, the party had just $11,219 left in the bank.

On June 28, the newly elected members of the State Central Committee voted Carroll out and chose Jeff Kaufmann as the Iowa GOP’s new chairman. Carroll told Radio Iowa today that he doesn’t want to make excuses, but he said the “continuing air of uncertainty” created by the battle for party leadership “made it impossible” for him to find someone willing to be the party’s fundraising chairman.

The party under Carroll’s leadership collected $11,500 dollars in donations from individuals in June and was able to end the month in the black due to a $17,500 check from the Republican National Committee. Carroll said he was “preoccupied” in May and June with organizing the party’s state convention as well as the special nominating convention for over 500 delegates who selected the Republican candidate for Iowa’s third district congressional seat.

Carroll agreed to give the party’s only paid staff member — former executive director Steve Bierfeldt — an exit package that included severance pay so Bierfeldt would not file for unemployment benefits. Documents filed with the Federal Election Commission indicate Bierfeldt was paid up to $38,000 in his final month with the party.

Jeff Kaufmann, the party’s new chairman, said in a written statement that he is “disappointed in the mismanagement of party affairs by previous staffers and leaders,” but Kaufmann said his job is to “look forward” not backward. Kaufmann’s goal is to raise $300,000 for the party by the end of September. Since Kaufmann became chairman, he has hired new staff for the party, including an executive director, a communications director and a consultant.

On June 30, the Iowa Democratic Party had $366,474 cash on hand.

Iowa senator who battled Oprah Winfrey in 1996 has died

Berl Priebe

Berl Priebe

A former state legislator who once got in a national spat with Oprah Winfrey has died.

Berl Priebe of Algona served in the Iowa House for four years and in the Iowa Senate for 24 years. Priebe, who raised Angus cattle, took offense to a 1996 Oprah Winfrey show about Mad Cow Disease. Priebe blamed Winfrey for the dramatic drop in U.S. cattle prices. He demanded that Winfrey tell her viewers Mad Cow Disease had not been found in the United States. Winfrey responded, saying she had asked questions the American public deserved to have answered given the Mad Cow outbreak in Great Britain.

In 1988, Priebe brought an Iowa State University nutritionist before his Senate Ag Committee to complain about her warning that there might be a link between grilled red meat and cancer. Priebe quipped that the researcher “got a taste of what it was like to be on the griddle for a while.”

Priebe was one of four senators — two Democrats and two Republican — who were known as the “Montana Mafia.” The senators were known for gathering at Montana’s — a bar near the statehouse — to plot strategy for killing bills they opposed in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Former Senator Jack Rife, a farmer from Moscow, Iowa, who later became the state Senate’s Republican Leader, was a member of the Montana Mafia.

“He was a colorful character,” Rife said this morning from his eastern Iowa farm, where he is cutting hay. “I enjoyed him very much.”

Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs, the current Democratic leader in the state senate, said Priebe had the unique ability to bring the senate to a stand-still.

“He was always quite adept and quite talented at figuring out the kind of amendment to offer that would put the place in a really uncomfortable position,” Gronstal said this morning.

Priebe, who owned race horses, then would often engage in what Priebe called “horse trading” to get something he wanted, in exchange for removing the roadblock he’d designed for another bill.

“It was great when he was on your side and it was maddening when he wasn’t because he could tie the place up pretty well,” Gronstal said.

This example from Gronstal illustrates Priebe’s ability to maneuver the levers of the legislature: “Berl Priebe always passed the first bill of the session, some bill out of ag committee…every single year. Even if somebody else was ahead of him, he figured out some way to make sure that his bill was the first bill to pass in the legislature.”

Priebe was also the long-time chairman of a powerful legislative committee that has the power to reject the rules and regulations state bureaucrats propose.

Priebe died Sunday at the age of 96. A memorial service for Priebe will be held Friday afternoon in Algona.

At least 139 Central American kids relocated to Iowa

An Iowa Latino leader says several children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras who crossed into the U.S. along the southern border are now living in Iowa, but their arrival has been kept quiet to avoid controversy.

“There’s a number of Latino families who have extended family members who are in those three countries, so they have been driving down to Texas and elsewhere to pick up those children and bring them back,” Joe Henry, state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa, told Radio Iowa today. “But they’re keeping this kind of secret right now because our governor has not embraced this effort.”

Just this past Monday Governor Terry Branstad repeated his opposition to having any of the unaccompanied kids who came into the U.S. from Central America placed in Iowa.

“I’m very empathetic for these teenagers and kids, but they’ve come here illegally and it would be wrong for us to send a signal: if you come here illegally, we’re going to just disperse you throughout the country and you don’t have to go home,” Branstad said. “…The country can’t afford that and I’m not the only governor that’s taken that stand.”

State and federal officials now confirm up to 139 undocumented children from Central America were relocated to Iowa in the past six and a half months. According to Henry, many of the children need mental health counseling because of the violence they were subjected to before they got to the U.S., but he said the governor’s stand makes that difficult.

“Actually what the governor’s been doing is he has been creating a chilling effect on the whole process, so things are being done behind the scenes,” Henry said.

Henry calls the unaccompanied children refugees. Branstad calls them law breakers.

“The problem’s been caused by the federal government and the administration’s unwillingness or inability to secure the border and protect American citizens against the influx of illegals,” Branstad said Monday.

A spokesman for Branstad says the federal government didn’t notify state officials when these immigration children were being placed in Iowa. After questions from reporters this week, the governor’s staff confirmed nearly 12 dozen unaccompanied kids had been placed in Iowa homes since the beginning of the year, but “it remains unclear” whether all those children are from Central America. Jimmy Centers, Branstad’s spokesman, says the governor is concerned the situation “may encourage others to attempt the very dangerous journey across Central America and Mexico.”