Benjamin Thomas Wolf
Democratic candidate for U.S. House (5th district)
Responses to our questions
The U.S. government is now $20 trillion in debt. To address that historic level of public indebtedness, the country would need to raise revenue and/or decrease spending. What is your position on the budget and debt?
The national debt is concerning, but the solution does not solely lie in slashing services, specifically, for our most vulnerable.
There are common sense measures we can undertake to address this problem, such as: not allowing corporation to use offshore tax havens, establishing a nominal tax on Wall Street speculation, establishing a Progressive Estate Tax, taxing capital gains and dividends, ending tax breaks and subsidies for big oil and coal, eliminating the cap on taxable income that goes into the Social Security Fund, and reducing wasteful spending at the Pentagon. As a father of three young boys, I hope that as my children grow and mature, they can rely on the same services and benefits that other generations have received.
We need to take a more serious look, economically and morally, at how we view the role government plays in our lives. As the world's most economically advanced nation, we have the opportunity to help many while looking towards the future.
Can you identify any major federal expenditures or programs that you would eliminate?
I worked for the federal government for two decades, during which time I had assignments within many departments of the Executive Branch. I was fortunate to have worked with some of the most dedicated and selfless professionals I have ever encountered.
Throughout my career, I noticed one major flaw in the federal government: duplicity. There always seemed to be too many people, positions, or offices with oftentimes overlapping jurisdiction or missions. At the end of my federal career, the entire federal government could have been reduced in size and cost by 20 percent. While I understand the need for some redundancy and a system of checks and balances, taxpayer money could be better directed elsewhere.
I have worked for many departments in a variety of duties, including multiple task forces serving the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, Treasury, Defense and Health and Human Services. It is of note that most federal employees I encountered observe, note, and discuss the replication of jobs and responsibilities. As a small business owner, homeowner and parent I see the misuse of taxpayer money as negligent at best.
Knowing how hard my fellow citizens and I work for our paychecks, it is unreasonable, and at times, criminal to have this money misappropriated. Programs protecting health, welfare, safety, education, and the environment should be protected from budget cuts. I speak from my direct experiences when I say that most, if not all, government programs could undergo a reduction in size.
Medicare and Medicaid costs continue to spiral. How can these programs be restructured to control costs and avoid collapse? Be specific about your willingness to change or reduce future benefits.
I disagree with the notion that Medicare and Medicaid costs continue to spiral. In fact, many sources have exaggerated these estimates. Medicare and Medicaid do need to be restructured, especially not through block grants or Medicare premium support that Speaker Ryan and former HHS Secretary Price support. These restructuring measures may save the federal government certain expenses but ultimately this type of program shifts the costs to current enrollees and the states themselves.
In fact, studies have shown that over the next ten years Medicare and Medicaid will be below or in line with GDP per capita growth, as opposed to private insurance costs growing well above it. I have no intention of supporting any legislation that restructures or reduces future benefits of either Medicare or Medicaid.
What if anything should be the federal government's role in helping Americans obtain health insurance coverage?
I support universal healthcare. Basic healthcare is a fundamental human right as stated by the United Nations.
Although the Affordable Care Act is good in theory, it has made health insurance more complicated and at times more expensive for many Americans. Only with a universal healthcare program can we assure everyone proper medical treatments and coverage. My first priority as a United States Congressman is to provide free and basic medical insurance for every person in our country in the form of universal healthcare.
As a career U.S. Diplomat, I have worked in dozens of nations with cost free and yet effective national coverage that provide both medical and mental healthcare for everyone. This allows for an overall happier and healthier society. In my job as a federal representative, I will provide leadership, protection, and new ideas to improve our national healthcare agenda. I see universal healthcare as my first national initiative.
Economic growth has been steady but wage growth is slow. Are you content with the state of the economy? What is your recipe for enhancing American prosperity?
The current state of wealth inequality is disturbing. As the gap grows, it becomes clearer that the rich can continue to save and invest money, while more than half of Americans cannot afford to put one dollar into a 401(k). In fact, ten percent of U.S. families own eighty percent of all publicly traded stock. America's greatness stems from its successful middle class. Just as other developing nations exhibit, we are beginning to see the widening gap in wealth pushing fewer to be extremely rich while large numbers of Americans slowly sink into poverty. Student loans, medical bills, and low wages continue to erode the middle class, not allowing them to have proper savings or have the ability to buy their own home.
We must find a mechanism or system to ensure free higher education for everyone. This includes: trade schools, community colleges, and four-year state universities. Yet, the effects of our education system extends beyond the time people attend school. Student loan debt is an epidemic that restrains American creativity and the overall American workforce. Funding for higher education will come about through priorities focusing on the development of American academics, tradesmen, and specializations. In higher education, we must reevaluate our priorities as a nation with a focus towards developing our most valuable resource, our people. Education must become a top priority.
If you could fix longstanding problems with this country's immigration system tomorrow, what would you do? What is your position on the future of DACA and the Dreamers?
It is imperative that the American immigration system is realistic and reasonable. Having worked in the immigration system and federal law enforcement for two decades I understand the complexities and difficulties of our current system and the legal need for borders. By simplifying the current law and regulations we can develop a system that is simpler and allows immigrants and workers alike, the opportunities that they have earned and deserved. Our immigration system must be clear, reasonable, and simple.
Furthermore, while borders must be visible and clear, history has shown us that walls simply do not work. The wall should not be built, and if it were to be built, it would accomplish nothing. This is yet another absurd idea in a long line of them by the president. Much like the Muslim ban, this idea is shrouded in prejudice and fear that simply speaks to Trump's base, further emboldening them and their nationalist agenda. Building a wall along our border with Mexico would cost taxpayers millions of dollars and accomplish nothing because it still would not solve the problems facing our immigration system.
Any refugees, asylees, immigrants, or DACA recipients should never be asked to leave their new home. DACA recipients did not come here voluntarily and are some of our brightest. America must continue forward with a new worldview and embrace new cultures, ideas, and people.
North Korea's nuclear weapons program represents a direct threat to the security of the United States and its Pacific allies. How should the U.S. confront or contain Kim Jong Un's regime?
Any outward threat to the United States or its allies must be seen as credible. As a former diplomat, I value peace and diplomacy. However, should there be constant threats or provocations, there will be a time for military action. Our intelligence and armed forces likely have already prepared various diplomatic, intelligence, and military options that range from preemptive to retaliatory. Any military action against North Korea seriously puts some of our strongest military and economic allies at great risk, not to mention millions of innocent people in the region. This means that the United States, South Korea, Japan, and China must do everything it can to maintain the status quo while using diplomatic and economic channels to halt North Korea from further developing nuclear weapons. Military action would only create chaos in a region that desires peace and prosperity.
An alternative solution is to pressure China to become more directly involved. For far too long, the United States has allowed China the luxury of circumventing direct involvement in negotiations with North Korea. China has repeatedly undercut U.S. sanctions by allowing Chinese banks and enterprises to continue doing business in North Korea. In the end, we must pressure China to recognize this is an international problem.
ISIS is contained in Syria and Iraq but terrorism remains a threat. What are your priorities in keeping the country safe?
Domestically, Congress must continue to ensure the intelligence communities and federal law enforcement have the proper resources at their disposal, including proper budget and personnel. Aside from resource allocation, Congress needs to pass an updated Authorization for the Use of Military Force or AUMF. The current AUMF has not been updated since it was first enacted days after 9/11. Congress must have the opportunity to reevaluate what is in the current AUMF so that congressional oversight and its constitutionally protected powers cannot be bypassed by the Executive Branch. Congress can do this while also assuring the military and our allies a smooth transition along with a renewed commitment to fighting terrorism at home and abroad.
Internationally, we must recognize that in our attempt to counter terrorist activities, we have only created more conflict. In our attempt to create peace, we have only created more war and suffering. I was a first responder to the Pentagon attack on September 11, 2001 and saw firsthand the effects of violence and terrorism. We must find ways to immediately remove Americans from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and all other current conflict zones. Violence will always beget violence. The United States must lead with a worldview and endorse peace.
Should the U.S. continue to abide by the terms of the nuclear agreement with Iran?
As a career Foreign Service member, I consider it to be a tragedy that we did not have diplomatic relations with Iran during my tenure. Iran is an incredible nation with a remarkably young and educated population and a cultural history that spans the evolution of mankind. Unfortunately, Iran has and continues to be led by religious leaders that prevent the Persian people from advancing as a legitimate country. The Iranian government continues to defy not only the United States in its quest to have nuclear weapons, a quest that only further destabilizes and inflames Middle East politics.
As a sovereign nation I understand Iran must advance its national interests, however, not at the expense of the region and perhaps the world. I believe that Iran must be forced to stop any and all advances in nuclear power, reactors or energy. We can never allow Iran to have the capabilities of building nor purchasing nuclear arms. To do so would be a danger to Israel, the United States, and many of our allies.
What is your position on the continued presence of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan?
The United States has been involved in two long-term conflicts for over fifteen years. Only by complete disengagement can we begin to rebuild international respect and credibility. Having served in conflict and war zones, including Iraq, I can attest to the fact we have lost mission and focus. The Afghan people must be given the opportunity to self-govern and to create a country with no conflict.
Do you support a unified, federal background check system for gun sales? Do you support magazine limits or a ban on certain rifles? Describe, briefly, your position on how to balance safety with the Second Amendment.
As a society, we must ban assault weapons for civilian use. Assault weapons are neither tools nor collectibles but rather mass killing machines. The gun violence in our nation is completely preventable with proper criminal background checks and the strict banning of any and all assault weapons.
As a federal agent, I carried a gun for over two decades and as a current gun owner, I know the importance of protecting the Second Amendment right to owning a firearm. I strongly believe in the right to protect homes, families, and property. My father grew up hunting for his family's food, so rifles and shotguns are basic tools in rural areas. We must recognize our right to bear arms, but likewise embrace common sense rules for our collective safety.
Should the U.S. government take steps to curb emissions of greenhouse gas? If so, what steps? If not, why not?
There is a Chinese proverb that states "the best time to plant a tree was 30 years ago. The second-best time is right now". We as Americans have not yet missed the opportunity to truly begin protecting the planet.
We must move to an entirely clean energy power grid, removing our dependence on obsolete coal or foreign oil. Americans are fortunate to have nation with tremendous geography and the ability to harness wind, water, and sunlight, which are overly abundant. We have oceans, plains, mountains and deserts to absorb the energy of the earth and channel it into our homes and businesses. Clean energy must be observed as an economic opportunity rather than an obstacle. In a time of electric cars, robots and automation that will replace manpower, we must begin to find new job opportunities and economic endeavors.
One of my first pieces of legislation will be to ensure that there is no more dumping of chemicals into the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes are the largest surface fresh water system on Earth and provide water for consumption, transportation, power, and recreation for over 30 million Mid-Westerners. Most importantly, the Great Lakes contain 18 percent of the world's fresh water, and therefore, protecting them should be one of the single largest environmental priorities for the country.
I will assist with the development of new economically driven power grids, power sources, and economic strength of which all Americans can be proud. Economics and environmental sustainability can be mutually symbiotic if done with proper forethought and legislation.
Tell us something about you that might surprise us.
I had a wonderful career as an FBI National Security Investigator, a United States diplomat, and now as a professor in Chicago. I spent years assisting developing nations throughout Africa and was deployed multiple times to Iraq. Throughout my adult life, there has been one constant that brings me clarity while keeping my body healthy and active: yoga. Yoga is one of the most important aspects of my life and allows me to remain physically fit while keeping my mind quiet in times of stress. Even while in conflict and war zones, I would find thirty minutes in which to quiet my mind, center my body, and exercise my physical self. Recently, I became a yoga instructor so that I could teach others the same positive attributes and skills I learned some years ago. I remain dedicated to my daily yoga practice and see it as a key to my personal, family and professional successes. In my opinion, there is a significant mind-body connection that yoga produces which has always been at the center of my success.
If you are an incumbent, tell us the most significant accomplishment of your current term.
I want to use this opportunity to point out the incumbent has accomplished nothing as a Congressman. More importantly, he has failed the 5th District of Illinois, its residents, and voters. Our district is one of the youngest and most progressive in the nation, which openly demands universal healthcare, legal cannabis, and strong unions. The incumbent has never publicly endorsed any of these ideas. He is a centrist Democrat who believes in the ACA when it has failed over and over. He has no stance on cannabis. Finally, and in a most damaging fashion, he voted for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which hurts unions and American workers. He has failed in his duties. I will strongly and boldly represent the people and voters of this district. My previous public service experience clearly exhibits my leadership skills, work ethic, and willingness to sacrifice.