2020 gave us silver linings and lessons to be learned
It’s been a rough year. We started 2020 with all eyes on Iowa for the first-in-the-nation presidential nominating contest. The Iowa caucuses took place under the cloud of a presidential impeachment. That surreal moment in history was eclipsed by a deadly virus that disrupted life as we know it.
No doubt, people are ready to put a divisive year of politics, protests and pandemic behind us. 2020 delivered lessons of sacrifice, hardship and loss wrapped in silver linings of resilience, gratitude and hope. Families missed graduations, weddings and funerals. Churches, schools and businesses closed. Consumers learned food and toilet paper don’t grow on grocery store shelves. More people realized food scarcity is a First World problem and to never take essential workers for granted. Health-care professionals became real-life superheroes, putting their lives on the line to care for patients. Front-line workers and first responders answered the call to help their neighbors, stocking stores, delivering food and continuing to serve and protect their communities.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) became a ubiquitous acronym and high-speed internet access became more important than ever to connect and participate in e-commerce, remote learning, telecommuting and telehealth visits.
So far, more than 300,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. They will be mourned for years to come. For countless others, navigating unemployment and social isolation bears untold stories of domestic violence, mental-health crises, academic disparity and undiagnosed diseases. The pandemic will leave scars in the social fabric of American society even as promising threads of hope emerge from COVID-19 vaccines.
Congress this year passed historic bipartisan pandemic relief, approving four packages containing more than $4 trillion to boost the nation’s response to the public-health crisis and economic fall-out. The $900 billion Congress approved this week delivers more help for the unemployed, small businesses, schools and vaccine distribution.
As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, I used my leadership position to ensure rural America wasn’t left behind in the nation’s pandemic response. I worked to steer direct relief and assistance to households, hospitals, small businesses, unemployed workers, student borrowers and farmers, and to bring accountability for patient care in nursing homes.
Our health-care professionals and hospitals in Iowa are doing a heroic job to save lives and keep their doors open to serve their communities during the pandemic and beyond. I fought to boost payments for doctors, secure critical funding for rural hospitals and expand coverage for Medicare beneficiaries, including mental-health televisits and rolling unused Flexible Spending Account dollars into 2021.
Getting additional money into the pockets of unemployed workers through enhanced unemployment insurance helps people who lost their paychecks through no fault of their own. The direct economic impact payments help families struggling to pay their bills. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) has delivered a $5 billion financial lifeline to more than 61,000 small businesses in Iowa to help the lifeblood of our communities retain their workers and save their livelihoods. Feedback from Iowa small businesses and local lenders prompted my efforts to loosen restrictions and empower businesses to get the most bang for the buck to suit their operations. I pushed successfully to expand the program and fix the misguided IRS directive that ignored congressional intent and barred borrowers from deducting expenses if they took a PPP loan. This would have created an unfair and costly tax liability for small businesses already struggling to survive.
As a taxpayer watchdog, I not only champion tax cuts and tax fairness, I keep close tabs on the federal tax-collecting agency. At an IRS oversight hearing this summer, I pressed the IRS commissioner about delayed refunds and missing stimulus payments Iowans were waiting to receive. My office continues to help Iowans track down answers from the IRS. Looking ahead, I’ll fight to keep pro-growth tax cuts in place that I helped secure in 2017. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act unleashed historic economic expansion, job creation and wage growth across the country. It would be stunningly reckless fiscal policy to raise taxes in a post-pandemic recovery.
Trade, health care and retirement security occupied central lanes throughout my final two years steering the Senate Finance Committee. I’ve long worked to empower employers and workers to grow retirement savings plans. The SECURE Act, the 2019 federal law I helped develop as chairman of the Finance Committee, allows more businesses to participate and invest in the retirement security of their workforce. Building on my work over the past two years with Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, I’ve introduced a comprehensive reform plan that would target assistance to severely underfunded multiemployer pension plans and provide long-term stability for retirees and protect taxpayers.
Leveraging my leadership for Iowa benefits the bread and butter of Iowa’s economy and also recognizes that farming is pivotal to U.S. food and energy security. My advocacy for biofuels and American agriculture is heard loud and clear at the White House and congressional negotiating tables. From pandemic relief to international trade, I looked out for Iowa grain and livestock producers facing triple-whammy obstacles from natural disasters, pandemic disruptions and trade barriers. I fought for Iowa goods and services in the new USMCA trade deal with Mexico and Canada and supported President Trump’s efforts to hold China’s feet to the fire on intellectual property, tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers.
Although my 99 county meetings were adapted to follow public-health guidelines, I continued my 40th consecutive year meeting face-to-face with Iowans. The pandemic dominated our conversations with one issue coming up at nearly every meeting: the soaring cost of prescription drugs.
The historic development, production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines underscore the urgent need to ensure life-saving pharmaceutical cures and treatments are affordable for all Americans. Our country is blessed with unparalleled investment and innovation that fosters health and prosperity for our families, farms and businesses. We owe a debt of gratitude for the legions of scientists, innovators and clinical trial participants, including those at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, who unlocked miracles of modern medicine and scientific discovery. Nonetheless, a competitive marketplace doesn’t give Big Pharma license to fleece American taxpayers or gouge consumers at the pharmacy counter. One of my highest priorities in the new year is steering my bipartisan drug-pricing bill across the finish line.
Looking ahead to my 41st year representing Iowa in the U.S. Senate, I’m grateful to be as fit as a fiddle, working as hard as ever on behalf of Iowans.
U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, of New Hartford, is Senate president pro tempore and served as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee in the 116th Congress.