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Jon Ebel

Democratic candidate for U.S. House (13th district)

Jon Ebel

Jon Ebel

Democratic candidate for U.S. House (13th district)

B.A., Harvard University, 1993 M.A. University of Chicago, 1999 Ph.D., University of Chicago, 2004
Professor, Dept. of Religion, University of Illinois
Past Political/Civic Experience

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?

A bit of history is useful here. Two decades ago, in the last four years of the Clinton administration, the federal budget was running surpluses. These years were followed by the Bush tax cuts, which put us into deficits year after year. Those cuts were targeted to benefit high income groups and the nation was told they would pay for themselves in increased growth, so we would continue to run surpluses by virtue of increased economic activity. Those promises were false. GDP growth went down during the Bush years, even before the economic crisis near the end of his presidency. The wealthy got wealthier, and middle-class families were passed over. Now the same promises are being made for the recent further tax cut that the Republicans just passed. And they will prove just as false.

I am not an economist, but I know and respect economists. The consensus of economists before the Bush tax cut was that it would have exactly the effects that it did have, which were not good for the nation. I will base my decisions on budget and debt on the best advice I can get from economists, not on pressure from lobbyists.

Can you identify any major federal expenditures or programs that you would eliminate?

The premise of your question seems to be that federal spending is too high. Let's put that in context. According to data gathered by the World Bank, the United States ranks 102nd among the world's nations in government spending as a fraction of GDP. Many nations with very high quality of life (as measured, for example, by access to affordable higher education, access to health care, access to child care for working families, secure pensions, high economic opportunity) spend significantly more.

That being said, there are ways that we can be smarter about how we do spend our dollars. A major class of "tax expenditure" (tax breaks that are equivalent to expenditures in creating our deficit) are incentives for production of fossil fuels. I would eliminate those to put clean energy sources on a more level playing field with fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gases.

We need reform in military procurement practices. A major problem is that we have too few in-house engineers and technical experts in the military, thus requiring us to rely too much on the technical knowledge in the industry that is marketing to us. The vendor experts have a clear conflict of interest, since the vendor is looking to maximize sales and profit. The result is excessive costs, cost overruns, and schedule slippage. As a former Navy officer who served on an aircraft carrier launching missions over Iraq, I know the importance of supplying our military with the best possible equipment. As a citizen and taxpayer, I know the importance of procuring that equipment in the most cost-effective manner.

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.

The most important reform is wider adoption of the bundled payment reimbursement model to providers as a replacement for piecemeal fee-for-service. Research published within the past year in the Journal of the American Medical Association analyzing the two models in comparable systems for the same services showed that bundled payment has the potential to cut costs significantly without compromising quality of care or outcomes.

I am a proponent of single payer Medicare-for-all national health care. In order to make this work affordably, a bundled payment model to providers is essential. This will essentially mimic the incentive system of other nations with advanced universal health care systems, all of which are more affordable than ours, and many of which have better outcomes than ours.

What if anything should be the federal government's role in helping Americans obtain health insurance coverage?

As I said above, I favor single payer Medicare-for-all with reforms in the reimbursement model, replacing fee-for-service with bundled payment for cost containment. As I think about the future of health care policy in the United States, I ask myself a simple set of questions: What is the right number of babies that can't see a doctor? What is the right number of families bankrupted by a chronic illness? What is the right number of hospitals that go bankrupt because they aren't being paid for the care they provide? For me, that number is zero. For those who want to tweak the ACA, to plug a few holes here and there, the right number of uninsured people is in the tens of millions. For those who want to repeal the ACA, the number exceeds seventy million. This is morally wrong. It also happens to be fiscally devastating to families and hospitals.

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 most successful modern President with respect to the performance of the economy was Bill Clinton. This is as measured by growth in GDP, median income, eliminating the deficit and reducing the national debt, and job growth. This was not just because times were good over all the world, as during the Clinton presidency the US economy outperformed the other advanced economies. This success was not because Clinton himself was an economic genius, but because he surrounded himself with the best economists he could find and followed their advice.

I will also follow advice from economists who work with real numbers and realistic projections, as opposed to those who peddle trickle-down fantasies. In general I support programs, such as $15 minimum wage and increased infrastructure spending, that prime the economic pump and will fight against those, like right to work, which take aim at the rights of working people to organize and bargain collectively.

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?

The Dreamers should be permitted to stay in the country with a clearly elucidated path to citizenship. Undocumented individuals who have been in the country for years, paying taxes and otherwise contributing to our society, should be provided with a clearly elucidated path to citizenship. Undocumented individuals who commit felonies should be eligible for deportation.

There should be a system of temporary employment visas, analogous to the present system of student visas which works well, both for the visiting students and for our colleges and universities.

The borders should be made secure, but not with a physical wall, which is third-century technology that will not be effective in the 21st century. Much more effective will be electronic surveillance such as drones, and leading-edge communication systems to coordinate the work of patrol agents along the border.

Our immigration policies should be unbiased with respect to ethnicity, religion, race, or national origin.

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?

My first duty station in the Navy was Seoul, Korea. I served there as the assistant intelligence officer to the Commander of U.S. Naval Forces, Korea (COMNAVFOR-K). I spent the better part of fifteen months watching North Korea. The lesson that I took from that experience is that everything the North Korean government (read: Kim il-Sung, Kim Chong-Il, and now Kim Chong-Un) does must be viewed through the lens of regime survival. The only thing the North Korean government desires is its own existence. So, they have taken a lesson from history. The United States is far less likely to attack or invade a nation that has a nuclear capability than one that does not.

The solution going forward is first, to realize that not all that much has changed in North Korea. Yes, they have a nuclear weapon. But they know that to use it would be to bring an end to the regime and to the DPRK. Second, we need to continue with the southward redeployment of American forces. As far back as 1994 we realized that our huge presence (with family members) in Seoul was imprudent and undermined our ability to negotiate credibly with the North Koreans. Third, we need to reverse the ruinous trend of gutting the State Department, emptying it of the expert knowledge that diplomats and military leaders need to wrestle with outlaw nations like North Korea. We have been waiting for the DPRK to rot from the inside out for three decades. We need to lay the groundwork for a future that includes it as part (albeit a regrettable part) of the community of nations.

ISIS is contained in Syria and Iraq but terrorism remains a threat. What are your priorities in keeping the country safe?

Terrorism is not military activity. Rather it is covert action. My first priority is to develop community policing and digital surveillance strategies that disrupt domestic terror networks of all types (not just those one might associate with Syria and Iraq) and limit self-radicalization among those inclined toward militant Islamism, white supremacism, or other violent ideologies. Overseas, large-scale military responses to terrorism are not the right answer. Such responses causes collateral damage and breeds more terrorists and terrorist sympathizers. The appropriate response is covert action that infiltrates and gathers information on terrorist networks and acts to neutralize their activity. Such action requires coordination between military intelligence, military special forces, civilian intelligence (CIA and FBI), and the diplomatic corps.

In this regard too I am very worried about the foolish hollowing out of our diplomatic corps by the Trump administration. This is making the United States less safe. In Congress, I will seek a seat on the House Intelligence Committee to have a role in using intelligence in an effective and morally defensible way to enhance the safety of the United States.

Should the U.S. continue to abide by the terms of the nuclear agreement with Iran?

We should continue to abide by the terms of the nuclear agreement with Iran. The terms of that agreement, which are verifiable and which Iran is observing, are preventing the development of Iranian nuclear weapons capability. If we abrogate the agreement, that will motivate the Iranians to push ahead with their nuclear development, destabilizing further the Middle East and making the United States and our allies less safe.

What is your position on the continued presence of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan?

I am personally opposed to the continued presence of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and am saddened that seventeen years after our initial deployments, we are still sending young women and men to fight without a well-defined objective or a clear exit strategy. I understand that the situation is complicated and dynamic, and that we haven't always gotten the support from regional allies that we expected.

But I believe also that our expectations, at least those that I heard described back in 2001, were unrealistic and that since the defeat of the Taliban we have been using the wrong tools to accomplish the legitimate goal of marginalizing Islamist movements and disrupting terrorist movements. I am also disappointed that Congress has shirked its moral and constitutional obligation to authorize and oversee the use of American troops abroad. The fact that we are still fighting under a seventeen-year-old AUMF is an indication that Congress has ceded the power to wage war entirely to the executive branch. Regardless of who occupies the White House, this is a shameful and a dangerous development.

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.

We lose 33,000 Americans to gun violence every year. Two-thirds of these are suicides, which generally involve handguns. Education about the incredibly dangerous intersection of handguns and depression must be part, maybe even the first part, of any serious nationwide effort to prevent gun violence.

I support banning bump stocks, imposing magazine limits, and keeping current restrictions on silencer purchases. I am appalled by the recent push for concealed carry reciprocity and the ban on federal funding for gun violence research. Sixty to eighty percent of Americans and the majority of NRA members agree that we should institute reasonable, nationwide restrictions on gun ownership. I plan to be a voice for that silenced majority.

In general, I would make an analogy between the right to own and carry a gun and the right to own and drive a car. The right to drive is not mentioned in the Constitution because cars did not exist at that time, but the right to drive is essential to almost everybody to live a happy and fulfilling life in our society. We arrange for essentially everybody to be able to drive, provided that their driving does not pose a threat to society. When it does, for example by drunken or reckless driving, we take that right away. Similarly, everyone who wishes to own and carry a gun should receive instruction on gun operation and safety and should be permitted to exercise that right, subject to indications that would be dangerous to society, such as a history of violent behavior. No rights are absolute. No right is more fundamental than the right to liberty mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, yet we incarcerate some people based on their danger to society.

We need a national gun registry. We also need universal background checks on all gun purchases and, I believe, on ammunition as well. I am open to argument on whether gun regulations should be administered by states or the federal government. Our system of state-by-state administration of automobile regulation is quite successful. But that is partly because we are largely in agreement across the country on what the standards should be for owning and driving a car. If we can agree on standards for gun ownership and carrying across the nation, I would agree with state-by-state administration. If not, federal administration of at least some aspects of gun regulation will be necessary.

Should the U.S. government take steps to curb emissions of greenhouse gas? If so, what steps? If not, why not?

I am persuaded by scientists that it is essential to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The atmospheric concentration of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide has pushed far beyond the range of fluctuations that have occurred over the last million years. It is still rising rapidly, as is the global atmospheric temperature. All the possible contributors to this have been analyzed. The rise in carbon dioxide is clearly due to fossil fuel burning, and the rise in temperature is clearly due to the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Even more alarming is that, because water has a higher heat capacity than air, the ocean temperatures will continue to rise significantly for decades even after we stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide. Since water expands as it warms, there will be a significant rise in sea level causing either very expensive mitigation of coastal communities or abandoning them. Models of the atmosphere suggest that the climate change will be accompanied by increasing incidence of violent storms.

A worst-case scenario, not certain but possible, is that we could go from world food surplus to worldwide food scarcity, as our food production systems are adapted to the recent and present climate patterns. Such a scarcity, in addition to directly causing human misery, would destabilize societies and the relationships between nations, due to desperate competition for food resources.

It is clear that we, and other nations, should shift from burning fossil fuels to other sources of energy, such as solar, wind, geothermal, and nuclear. In a market-based economy (which I support) it is not appropriate for the government to mandate such a shift. Rather it should be done by shifting incentives. Economic models tell us that the most effective incentive-shifter would be a tax on the carbon content of fossil fuels, either at the point of extraction or the point of importation. If it is politically possible and can be accomplished in a non-regressive way, I will support such a tax. If that turns out not to be feasible I will support other measures to facilitate the shift away from fossil fuels.

We must figure a way to transition to green and renewable energy sources that does not leave behind or penalize communities that are already under-resourced.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us.

I have performed in thirteen ballet productions. Each of my three daughters has been involved in ballet since turning three. I realized very early that if I wanted to spend quality time with them, I was going to have to brave the shoes and, yes, the tights. It is one of the best decisions I ever made. We have had a wonderful time together and have made some great memories. Many parents say they would do anything for their children . . . I have run seventeen marathons, which should indicate to voters that I am disciplined, determined, and have a tolerance for pain. I think that these qualities are important for someone who hopes to serve in Congress. And I'm pretty sure that I'm the only ballet-dancing, marathon-running, religion professor, Guggenheim fellow, Navy veteran running for Congress . . . this cycle.

On a more serious note, perhaps the lessons that I took from military service are surprising. In the military I was surrounded for the first time by a broad cross-section of people, from all types of communities and with many different perspectives. Although we did not talk much about politics we all became aware in general of where we were in the political spectrum. But we put that aside to accomplish the mission. We need that perspective in our legislative bodies. In Congress there are many lawyers whose training is to win by destroying the arguments of the other side. That perspective can lead to endless one-upmanship in which the interests of the people as a whole are put aside. I hope that I can bring to Congress the perspective that, once we have debated our points, it is time to put our differences aside and get on with the mission.

Also, I am the author of two books: Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the Great War, and G.I. Messiahs: Soldiering, War, and American Civil Religion These two books, and other writings, reflect my deep interest in the role of religion in the lives of ordinary Americans. Many other scholars of religion focus on religious leaders. My focus is different. I seek to understand the religious lives of ordinary Americans. In my service in Congress, I will be motivated by how the large ideas and issues debated in Washington affect regular people and will act in the interest of all Americans.

If you are an incumbent, tell us the most significant accomplishment of your current term.

I am not an incumbent.

Candidates for U.S. House (13th district)