Democratic candidate for U.S. House (18th 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 public debt of the U.S. is excessive, but an analysis of the current debt as a percentage of GDP is perhaps more instructive.
This analysis reveals that there have been times in the nation's past when the debt-to-GDP ratio was high, like at the end of World War II, but the nation summoned the means to address the problem and the engine of economic growth generated unrivaled prosperity for an entire generation.
If we can summon the will to address the debt crisis today and take action, we too can witness the kind of economic prosperity that can produce jobs and help the nation reduce the onerous burden of debt. Washington, D.C., has been preoccupied with the blame game of determining what group bears responsibility for exploding the national debt, but such finger pointing does nothing to alleviate the problem by working toward solutions.
As responsible citizens we must take ownership that we are responsible for this debt and we must demand that elected officials develop a rational approach to reducing the national debt. This approach must include both spending cuts as well as revenue enhancements; using only one of these mechanisms while ignoring the other will not produce the results that we seek.
This work must begin with the U.S. Congress operating on the premise that a balanced budget is a necessary starting point for addressing the fiscal woes that we face as a nation. Responsible leadership must always demand that we spend within our means.
Independent analysis from the CBO can predict with a high degree of accuracy what revenues the nation can anticipate for the coming year, so the work of curbing spending must be done to fit the constraints of the nation's income. This process may not be pleasant as hard choices need to be made, but it is absolutely necessary. National spending priorities must be strategic so that economic growth and prosperity might result from wise investments in infrastructure, technology, and education. Creatively anticipating and planning for future needs almost a generation before circumstances arrive is vital to ensuring that our economy maintains a stable growth pattern. Doing so effectively allows us to fuel the engine of economic development that might well continue for decades into the future.
The danger, if we proceed with a business as usual mentality, is that spending on congressional pet projects rather than financing strategic investments would not provide us with the foundation that is necessary for ever-expanding economic growth. We have reached the point of reckoning with respect to the debt crisis; the status quo is untenable, and the next Congress must make the hard choices that are necessary to restore fiscal responsibility to Washington, D.C.
The bitter pill for both political parties is that the solution to this matter will not be found within partisan talking points, but rather it will be negotiated through reasoned compromises that may take some a bit outside of their comfort zones, but are nonetheless necessary for our national wellbeing.
Can you identify any major federal expenditures or programs that you would eliminate?
Getting a handle on the federal budget is an important task for the next Congress, but it is a nuanced matter that requires more than the work of a fiscal scalpel. While there are some programs that might be eliminated, scaled back, or reduced per rate of expansion, there are other areas where necessary expansion or rational amortization are more prudent responses.
As an example, projections in the Veterans Administration are that rising healthcare costs of veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will produce a burden on the federal budget over the next three decades that we are unprepared to match. This is one of the situations where payments now, whether into a trust fund or a "lock-box," produce the desired revenues that we will need one generation hence.
I do believe in the concept of federalism, and as such, there are some areas in which the federal government can reduce expenditures by avoiding work that is either a duplication of or the prerogative of the states. I am confident that some reductions could be attained by streamlining some of the work that is done by the Department of Education in this regard. Oversight and maintenance of standards are important roles — ones that must be supported, but other tasks that infringe upon the rights of states to control curricular decisions should be curtailed.
I also believe that some cost-savings can be achieved through various synergies that might present themselves. As an example, much of the work of the Commerce Department in working out trade agreements can easily dovetail into the diplomatic mission of the State Department. Regardless of the level of cost-savings that could be attained through such cooperation, the benefit of having both agencies "speaking from the same page" would be tremendously beneficial to the nation in the long run.
In addition, there are Cold War Era expenditures and obligations that remain in place that need to be revisited. Our fiscal priorities and national objectives must be products of the times in which we live. In some cases it will be necessary to review the anticipated growth rates that are hardwired into some federal programs. Where it is possible to reduce anticipated growth rates without creating an unnecessary burden, prudence would suggest that these rates be periodically revisited. This would be particularly helpful when assessing the budgets for the Agriculture and Defense departments, among others.
In its ideal theoretical form, the advocates of Keynesian economics in the 1930s suggested that the government should not spend more than it takes in during a recessionary year. And as a corollary to this, the government should use the benefits of prosperity to create the "rainy day fund" for those unexpected obligations that arise. We will never achieve this ideal balance, but it is important that we strive to put our fiscal house in order and create budgets that are balanced.
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 would not support any reform proposal that would reduce Social Security or Medicare benefits to our elderly. We have made a solemn commitment to our seniors through the generations that we will support them, and that pledge must be honored. With respect to these two programs, rather than considering how we might reduce benefits as a means of reform we should instead consider how we might enhance funding so that these programs have a more sustainable future.
With respect to Social Security, I believe that the longevity of the program can be extended by making some adjustments to the current system, but these must be shared by all cohorts and at all socio-economic levels. I have advocated the following points (1) increase of the retirement age to 70 to be phased in over a ten-year period; (2) raise the cap for FICA payments up to $200,000 from its current level; and (3) institute a system of means testing that is pegged to inflation. I believe that these are starting points for discussion on how to extend the health of the Social Security Trust Fund.
Real support for extending the life of entitlement programs will come from expanding the labor pool, creating good paying jobs, and creating a pathway toward citizenship for current undocumented workers living in the U.S. As more workers start paying taxes into the system we will see an enhancement in revenue that will be able to support these entitlement programs.
In addition, changing demography also becomes a factor in this equation. Anticipated higher birth rates will also provide a larger workforce for future generations and this will also enhance revenues to fund these programs.
With respect to Medicaid it is possible that some savings can be achieved through the elimination of fraud and the streamlining of the bureaucratic paperwork involved in processing claims, but more work remains to be done. It is perhaps necessary to reevaluate the threshold requirements of who qualifies for benefits under Medicaid so that we can ensure that the most deserving are receiving the support to which they are entitled.
In addition, while I would not support efforts to privatize Medicaid, I would be willing to permit up to five states to experiment with block-grant funding in lieu of Medicaid to see what kinds of efficiencies they might be able to produce with respect to this program. Innovations at the state level are often the laboratories of democracy, and we must be willing to consider alternative approaches that can extend the life of this program while at the same time ensuring that the quality of care provided is not diminished.
What if anything should be the federal government's role in helping Americans obtain health insurance coverage?
Healthcare is a human right emanating from our Lockean rights of life and estate; any attempt to suggest otherwise violates our inherent human dignity.
I believe that ultimately our national healthcare debate will result in a single-payer system like the European model that provides universal coverage. Unfortunately, the U.S. currently lacks the political will and the fiscal wherewithal to implement such changes, though one will likely emerge within the coming decade.
Thus, the short-term healthcare solutions that I offer are modifications along the periphery to remedy the harsher aspects of our current broken system.
Americans who reach 55 should have the option of buying into Medicare at the going market rate to provide coverage until they are able to reap the benefits to which they are entitled. Many who retire in their fifties are finding it impossible to afford health insurance with the limited means of pensions alone, and some retirees have been forced back into the labor market (at a financial disadvantage) simply to obtain benefits. This reform impacts those who constitute the late "baby boom" generation, and this would both ensure coverage and expand the job market to younger laborers.
Congress must fund the Children's Health Insurance Program operated through federal-state dollar collaboration. An estimated 9 million children constitute the vulnerable cohort of those whose families earn too much for Medicaid but not enough to afford healthcare on their own; these are the children of the "working poor" in America. Supporting CHIP is a pro-child policy that also encourages families to pursue employment-based solutions to their circumstances rather than relying solely upon public assistance.
I support a limited public option insurance program to guarantee that choice exists across the country where individuals seek affordable healthcare coverage. This option is not designed to push private providers out of the market, but rather intended to encourage competition in this market. This program would be beneficial in many of the rural counties and would certainly have a positive impact in West Central Illinois.
The healthcare mandate for the cohort of young, healthy American workers (the so-called "invincibles") must be reinstated, but modifications are needed that vary from the initial mandate adopted in 2010. You cannot operate a sustainable business plan if individuals have the option of purchasing a healthcare plan only when they need it. A revised mandate could be funded through payroll taxes, reducing the penalty onus paid when filing taxes. The business community could be given a tax credit for its role in collecting such fees and effectively encouraging buy in to this system. The primary purpose of the mandate must be to reduce insurance costs to the high-risk cohort, so the mandate cannot simply be a boon for the insurance industry.
Government healthcare policy must lower costs and expand coverage for all. Efforts to reduce the costs of pharmaceuticals that are rising at an exorbitant rate must be stressed. Researching best-practices used in Western Europe and Canada can be beneficial to U.S. policymakers seeking to effect these changes.
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?
While we have witnessed substantial economic growth since the economic crisis of 2008, the recovery has been largely uneven.
Rural communities, in particular, still struggle as the forgotten places of the economic recovery, and job creation has lagged tremendously in these regions. Targeted investments in infrastructure and education & training expenditures are necessary for workforce development, and synergies between local, state, and federal partners must be formed to make these communities attractive locations for new business development. In addition, the expansion of rural broadband internet can also generate tremendous economic potential. We must also do all that is possible in these forgotten places to address the needs of both the unemployed and the underemployed.
That the gender-based wage gap has persisted through the years is evidence that systemic and institutional factors are at play that contribute to this problem. Women constitute nearly two-thirds of workers who are employed at minimum wage jobs, so an effort to raise the minimum wage is one of the means that can be used to address the wage gap.
The purchasing power of the minimum wage (adjusted for inflation) has been erratic through the years, and the relative value of a minimum wage salary has declined by nearly 20 percent since the last hike in minimum wage occurred back in 2009. I would like to see the federal government implement a three-year tiered plan to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2021. Individual states and cities would retain the right to use a minimum wage that his higher than the federal standard, but this adjustment would significantly raise the threshold so that wage gap differences would be lessened.
The federal minimum wage for tipped labor, which stands at $2.13 per hour, has not been raised in the past fifteen years. Since women also constitute the majority of American workers who are employed as tipped laborers, an increase in the tipped minimum wage would also have an impact upon efforts to remedy the wage gap. I believe that the federal minimum tipped wage should ultimately be $5.05 (half of the newly proposed minimum wage) to be achieved on a three-year tiered plan of increase.
These two initiatives would go a long way in helping to remedy much of the wage differences that account for the wage gap. Other factors that must be considered if we hope to address the wage gap are the levels of support that we find at the state and federal levels to help provide safe and affordable child care for working women as well as substantial investment in early childhood education programs. All too often women who labor among the so-called "working poor" must make the choice of whether or not they can work due to the financial constraints that child care costs provide. Frequently reliance on family to provide such services, or other less than ideal circumstances, is used as a stopgap measure, but interruptions in such arrangements makes it difficult for one to sustain employment for an extended time.
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?
If the U.S. Congress can find a bipartisan solution to the divisive issue of immigration reform, the resolution of that question will have beneficial effects that will ripple throughout the American economy. The addition of new revenues as millions of workers begin to pay federal taxes will help fund existing needs and allow new monies that can be used to fuel economic expansion. Moreover, the acknowledgement that a path toward citizenship exists allows millions to come out of the shadows and participate more fully in our citizen democracy. To echo Lincoln, this provides "a new birth of freedom" to millions who came here seeking opportunity and freedom from despair.
I largely support the draft proposal that was outlined by the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" in 2013 to try and craft a comprehensive immigration reform bill. This issue, perhaps better than any other, demonstrates the need for politicians to move beyond the partisan divide and do what is right — as a matter of human rights — for the estimated 12 million undocumented workers who are currently residing in the United States.
The nonsensical idea of mass deportations is a straw argument as it is both infeasible and morally repugnant to the values that we hold dear as citizens of a nation rooted in the immigrant experience. Our current generation cannot be the one to douse the hope that is represented by Liberty's torch — we know our story and recognize it writ large in the optimistic faces of children who have found safe haven here.
Any system of immigration reform must include the means whereby those who violated the immigration laws of the United States are able to pay their fines and process their paperwork accordingly. Sequential preference must be given to those individuals who immigrated legally, but once that is achieved we should permit others to begin their naturalization process so that they can work toward full citizenship. If it is determined that an individual who is here as an undocumented worker committed a violent felony while residing in the U.S., that individual should be deported and permanently denied the right to seek citizenship. Under no circumstance should the U.S. seek to deny citizenship to any child who was born in the U.S. and thereby attained birthright citizenship according to the terms of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Elements of a comprehensive immigration reform bill must also provide additional funding for border security. This should include additional manpower in border security guards as well as the implementation of state-of-the-art technological surveillance of the border region. The bill must also include provisions that fine businesses for failing to perform background verification on hiring of undocumented workers.
The ideal bill must be moderate in its tone — it must reflect an understanding of the human dimension of this dilemma while striking a balance with the need to levy fines or punishment against those who have violated the law. Additionally, I do support the DREAM Act as initially proposed and support a continuation of the DACA policy.
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?
There is no tenable military solution that can remedy the proliferation of a nuclear weapons regime in North Korea. Even a conventional military strike would unleash an untenable number of casualties due to the geographic and demographic realities of the Korean peninsula. In addition, the close proximity of vast populations in China and Japan, both of which would be affected by even a limited nuclear strike in Korea, rule out any serious consideration of that option.
The solution to the Korean crisis is one that must be found within the world of diplomacy. Since the end of the Cold War Era, one of the greatest threats to world peace and security has been the threat of nuclear proliferation whether to rogue states or to not-state terrorist entities. In the case of both Iran and North Korea, we have witnessed active campaigns by rogue states to develop a nuclear program either to gain viability or, perhaps, to possess a bargaining chip with the West. Fortunately, the world has witnessed restraint on the part of traditional members of the nuclear club as these nations have recognized that possessing a strategic weapons advantage also presents a burden. International agreements like the START treaties and protocols established by the IAEA have largely eliminated tactical nuclear weapons from national arsenals and secured systems within the former Soviet states. This type of success has been the byproduct of effective diplomacy and negotiation.
As difficult as it may seem, the greatest security the world can find with respect to rogue states like Iran and North Korea with respect to their nuclear ambitions is to find the means to bring these nations into the family of nations. In the case of North Korea, the biggest bargaining chip that exists is economic assistance. It is possible that the Six Nation talks that have taken place over the past two decades might well bear fruit. We must always believe in the potential of continuous negotiation so that a process is in place for serious talks at moments of opportunity that might arise.
Historically, the United States has been one of the few nations in the world that has withheld diplomatic recognition from those rogue states with which we disagree. This kind of morality-based policy has always been a bit at odds with the general amoral nature of international diplomacy. A willingness to negotiate, whether thru the formal creation of an embassy or utilizing a third-party site location, has the potential to yield results.
Although it is not an effective component of a strategy, the potential for regime change in rogue states like North Korea might also provide opportunities or diplomatic moments when effective negotiations can occur. If the estimates of North Korea's food shortages are correct, it is possible that the popular support for the Kim Dynasty might be less than genuine. The effectiveness of such an opportunity would, however, be dependent upon the existence of previously developed lines of diplomatic communication between the United States and North Korea.
ISIS is contained in Syria and Iraq but terrorism remains a threat. What are your priorities in keeping the country safe?
The oceans that border the United States have provided us with a cushion of security throughout our nation's history, but the Pearl Harbor and 9-11 attacks remind us that no nation can consider itself immune from attack by an outside force. We must also work to partner effectively with intelligence networks in Canada and Mexico to make sure that monitoring of foreign nationals who seek entry into those countries are effectively cross-checked against the terrorist watch list that the U.S. maintains.
In similar fashion, the U.S. must continue to work in conjunction with Interpol to track potential terror suspects and to seek out signature patterns of behavior that might suggest a plot in its planning stages. Such monitoring must also be used to observe electronic financial transactions that might indicate pending action.
Key investments must be made into both research and training associated with human factors work. Some of the best policing that is done in this regard is carried out by well-trained officers who understand how to read the psychological and physiological ques that can indicate a level of stress that one is experiencing. Law enforcement personnel who are familiar with the conducting of polygraph tests know that eye twitching, rapid heartbeat, and perspiration will often suggest that one's comfort level is less than ideal during questioning. These and similar tests that look for the ques in a variety of human metrics can be incorporated to insure the safety of the American people from those who might wish to do us harm.
It is wise to tread carefully when vetting potential Syrian refugees for admission into the United States, but I do not believe that this program should be permanently halted. There are measures that can be taken to assure the veracity of individuals who are seeking refuge, and these should be used. Three considerations that might be evaluated in this regard are: the level of valid documentation that can be provided, the age of the potential refugee, and the willingness of a corporate body (for example, a church) to "adopt" a potential refugee or family. If these three factors are taken into consideration, we can have a greater level of certainty regarding the admission of potential refugees.
There are many refugees from Syria who were able to flee their nation with valid passports and other papers that verify that they are who they say that they are. Many of these individuals are people of wealth who possess education and training in valuable fields like medicine. Those individuals who fall within this group should be considered to be eligible for potential refugee status in the U.S. There are individuals who may well qualify for admission as refugees on humanitarian grounds. The elderly and women with young children would fall into this category. If individuals in this grouping were processed according to the vetting standards that were described earlier, most would be deemed safe for consideration as potential refugees.
Should the U.S. continue to abide by the terms of the nuclear agreement with Iran?
One of the great dilemmas that we face in life is whether we choose to deal with the world as it is or whether we deal with the world as we wish it to be. We have pondered this question since Aristotle and Plato wandered and taught along the streets of ancient Athens, and we still struggle with it today.
Despite the best efforts of western powers to place economic sanctions on Iran in the wake of the Iranian Revolution (1979) and subsequent action by United Nations Resolution 1696 that placed additional sanctions when Iran continued its practice of uranium enrichment, the reality is that Iran was able to persist with a robust program of uranium enrichment and missile research over the past few decades. In the view of international experts who monitor nuclear proliferation, Iran was quickly closing in on the capacity to join the nuclear club, and sanctions alone were insufficient to stop this progress. Moreover, none of the western powers viewed a war with Iran over the question of its nuclear program as an option that they wished to pursue.
In choosing to deal with the world as it is, diplomacy was the only option available to try to mitigate the effects that a nuclear armed Iran would have in destabilizing the entire Middle East. In short, the specter of a nuclear arms race occurring within one of the world's most conflict-prone regions was a nightmarish outcome that could destabilize much of the world. A diplomatic solution was essential.
The Iran nuclear deal that was announced last year is likely the best possible solution that was attainable under the circumstances. The agreement does constrain Iran's capacity to do further testing, and if such behavior is noted by international monitors, the western powers do have the right to institute new sanctions upon Iran. I believe that new sanctions would be appropriate if it was determined that Iran was continuing its research and development to create a ballistic missile program since this would clearly be a violation of the terms of the agreement.
As I write these comments there are protests taking place in cities across Iran. It is too early to know if this movement might lead to regime change or not, but in any event, it remains in the best interest of the U.S. to pursue a diplomatic solution with regard to Iran's nuclear weapons program. It would be short-sighted of the U.S. to try and walk away from this multi-lateral agreement.
What is your position on the continued presence of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan?
Under current plans, several thousand U.S. forces will remain in Afghanistan until 2019, some seventeen years (four presidential terms) since the horrific 9-11 attack that prompted our incursion into Afghanistan. This contingent of troops is meant to protect the fledgling Afghan government from the threat of the resurgent Taliban, the force that we initially toppled back in 2001. The next president will need to determine if a residual force remains in Afghanistan post-2019 or if the final removal of U.S. forces is completed.
An American military footprint remains in Japan some seven decades following the conclusion of the Second World War, and troops remain in South Korea since an armistice was negotiated in that conflict in 1953. Although a generation has now passed since the conclusion of the Cold War, we still find ourselves positioned worldwide although the necessity for these commitments may have waned. It may well be worth the time to conduct a top-to-bottom needs assessment to evaluate these obligations to determine what level of troop commitment is necessary. Perhaps a drawdown or a reallocation of resources might occur as a result.
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.
I do believe that background checks for gun sales should be standard across the country and that this would include sales that are conducted at gun shows. If someone with a prior felony arrest for violent crimes or someone who has a known mental illness attempts to purchase a weapon, those individuals should be prohibited from completing the purchase. This is necessary to protect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens who play by the rules and follow the law. It would seem illogical to maintain a loophole in the law that would allow convicted felons and those with known mental illness to have more protections than those who follow the law and comply with background checks.
I grew up in South Louisiana, a place where hunting and fishing is engrained into the local culture just as much as it is here in West Central Illinois. I understand and fully support the right of law abiding citizens to own guns as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. I do not support magazine limits or bans on certain rifles that have been proposed by some. The issue that needs to be addressed is that criminals and those with known mental illness need to be denied access to purchasing weapons. This will do more to protect the rights of all law-abiding citizens.
Should the U.S. government take steps to curb emissions of greenhouse gas? If so, what steps? If not, why not?
I do believe that global warming is a real phenomenon that must be of concern to public policy makers at all levels of government — local, state, and federal. Both man-made (anthropogenic) and natural causes are responsible for the rapid pace at which climate change has occurred within the past three decades, but the preponderance of evidence clearly shows that anthropogenic causes — particularly our reliance upon carbon-based fossil fuels — have contributed significantly to the changes that have occurred.
Several policy initiatives are necessary if the U.S. wishes to be a global leader in combatting global warming, and chief among these is the necessity of curbing greenhouse gas emissions. The presence of a high volume of particulate matter in the atmosphere is clearly one of the issues that has contributed to global warming, and our continued reliance upon coal-fired plants in various industrial sectors has played a role in this.
Policy makers have generally suggested two different ways that governments can work effectively to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: these include the market-based "cap and trade" solution and the fiscal alternative of creating a carbon tax. Of these two policies, my preference is to use the carbon tax model because I believe that it incentivizes industry to make the necessary changes to protect the environment because it is in their own best interest to do so. I have recently read where a carbon tax of $15 per ton would, over the course of a decade, recover the revenues lost by the tax cut legislation of 2017 while at the same time provide a degree of equity between the red state-blue state imbalance that was built into that measure.
Fortunately, Illinois is well ahead of many states in moving to a more sustainable energy base. Currently half of the energy produced in this state is coming from renewable sources like wind and solar along with a reliance on nuclear power. We have made great strides in moving toward creating less of a carbon footprint, but work remains to be done. In this regard, it is vitally important to have state and federal policy makers speaking with a unified voice when it comes to sustained efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We cannot risk sending mixed messages.
Additionally, Illinois has been a leader in ethanol production. Vehicles that use ethanol based fuels produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than those that use traditional gasoline. While there is still more work that can be done in regard to ethanol production to create even greater efficiencies of scale, I believe that this can be a growth industry for the state that can assist in our larger efforts to improve the environmental quality of the region.
Tell us something about you that might surprise us.
I have been the general editor for seven reference encyclopedia projects that deal with various aspects of the history of slavery, abolitionism, and emancipation in world history. In addition, I helped develop a documentary for the History Channel on world slavery.
If you are an incumbent, tell us the most significant accomplishment of your current term.