U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, met with farmer and business groups Thursday, discussing agricultural trade, possible impacts of the 2020 election and the next round of COVID-19 response.
On Thursday afternoon, Grassley held a question-and-answer session with members of the Dubuque County, Jackson County and Clinton County farm bureaus at Ohnward Fine Arts Center in Maquoketa. Earlier in the day, he met with Delaware County Farm Bureau members.
Scott Scheckel, president of Jackson County Farm Bureau, asked the senator how confident he was that China would live up to the conditions of their phase-one trade agreement with the U.S.
“They’ve really been buying corn and beans lately,” Scheckel said. “But, I’d be interested to know where we’ll be with those expectations.”
Grassley acknowledged that China might not meet the $40 billion purchase limit for 2020 included in the agreement, which was reached in January. But he said that was due to impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit China first.
“Their economy is recovering fast but hasn’t quite turned around,” he said.
Grassley pointed to major numbers in purchases of U.S. grain by China, including 588 million tons of soybeans and more in corn as good signs.
“Four weeks ago, we had the biggest one-week sale of corn,” he said. “The next week, that record was broken. We’re feeling positive about it.”
Grassley said he thought that negotiations toward the second phase of the U.S.-China trade agreement would have at least started in earnest by year’s end. But he said 2020 being an election year has held those up.
And he said the November election might impact those negotiations.
“If Trump is re-elected, I would expect us to go toward phase two, even though Trump said recently, ‘I’m not anxious to do any more negotiating with China,’” he said. “I think that’s just posturing for the election.”
Trade is not the only issue Grassley hung on the election’s outcome.
During an earlier meeting with Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce members, property developer John Gronen asked about the possibility of a proposed increase of federal historic tax credits from 20% to 30% to help save projects that were delayed and harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There are too many stories to tell about major projects that have been hit hard by this pandemic — developers are facing lease-up issues, material reductions and increased costs, labor problems,” he said.
Grassley said he would continue to be a supporter of historic tax credits, but that because their most recent increase was part of the Republican tax reform of 2017, the election is going to determine another increase’s chances.
“If Trump is re-elected and Republicans maintain the Senate, there is a reluctance to open up the tax bill because then everyone would want to change something,” he said. “If (Democrat Joe) Biden is elected and Democrats take the Senate, they’re going to want to change the whole 2017 tax bill, although I don’t think that would be a part they would take away.”
In general, Grassley said he hopes Congress can figure out the long-awaited fourth phase of coronavirus relief soon.
“With the (Paycheck Protection Program) there’s a lot of agreement, (as well as) aid to the K-12 education because of sanitizing and everything you need to do to keep people healthy,” he said. “The real one where there’s big disagreement is (Democratic U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy) Pelosi wants to continue $600 enhanced federal unemployment.”
In both Dubuque and Maquoketa, Grassley guaranteed that whatever the unemployment payment is, it will not be the $600 per week included in the CARES Act.
“There will be some in there,” he said. “But, as a matter of political compromise, it will probably be between $200 and $600. It’s very unfair for the government to be an unfair competitor.”
Generally, Grassley said that bill was thrown together, leading to significant challenges in implementation, which continue.
“This package was put together very quickly, without all the thought that should go into $2.2 trillion,” he said.
Cory Jacobson, owner of Phoenix Theatres at Kennedy Mall, said during the chamber of commerce’s question-and-answer session that due to being forcibly shuttered by government order during much of the pandemic, he faces financial problems with no aid.
“The PPP money doesn’t do us a lot of good because we’ve been closed this whole time,” Jacobson said. “We had a very successful business before the start of this. But I have five months worth of rent, utility bills and expenses that have been piling up. I have a money burn of $400,000 a month between all of our businesses, which are impossible.”
He recommended the Restart Act, moving through Congress, which would offer loans for businesses that had suffered 75% or higher loss due to pandemic closures. Grassley said that since that bill had reached the Congressional Budget Office, it might have a chance.