Minnesota 2nd District foes face off in new arena: their agendas
ST. PAUL — The close race for Minnesota's 2nd Congressional District has big implications for public policy. But the bitter contest itself has been almost devoid of policy discussions.
Instead, the TV ads and postcards produced by Republican Jason Lewis, Democrat Angie Craig and their respective allies have largely focused on personality and background. The race has focused not on plans for the economy or the Affordable Care Act but on Lewis' past career as a talk radio host and Craig's as a medical device company executive.
Independence Party candidate Paula Overby is also on the ballot.
Both major party candidates have strong and detailed positions about a range of policy issues, even if the ubiquitous TV ads never go into any detail. The Pioneer Press sat down with Lewis and Craig for in-depth discussions of the policies they would pursue if elected in three major areas.
Both candidates say America's health care laws need changing, but they differ in where they would focus. Craig would target underlying health costs, particularly prescription drugs, while Lewis' focus is market reform.
Craig supports the 2010 Affordable Care Act but believes the federal government needs to take extra actions to improve health care in the United States.
Her top priority here is actions to try to cut down on the cost of prescription drugs, which account for nearly 10 percent of total medical costs in the U.S.
As a "short-term" measure she would let Americans import drugs from Canadian pharmacies, where pharmaceuticals are less expensive. She also would let Medicare negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies and generally believes more regulations are necessary to keep the prices of drugs down.
"The pharmaceutical industry has proven itself unreliable to regulate itself, and we need to be much stronger about making sure the American people are getting a better deal from pharmaceutical companies," Craig said.
Though Craig is not in favor of outright price controls, she backs new laws such as limiting deals where drug companies pay to keep a generic competitor off the market.
Problems with the individual insurance markets, Craig said, should be tackled first at the state level rather than the federal level. But she said the federal government should incentivize new models of health care delivery that could save money.
Lewis believes the problem with health care is too much government regulation, not too little. He wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, though he says the state of health care before the ACA also was unacceptable.
Where the ACA required health plans to be more generous, Lewis believes letting insurers offer bare-bones plans again would bring down costs and bring young, healthy people into the insurance market.
To stabilize the insurance market Lewis would end the current system where each state is its own insurance market. Letting insurance companies sell across state lines, he argues, would create bigger pools of customers.
He'd prefer to also create high-risk pools to cover the most expensive patients outside of the normal insurance market, so their sky-high costs don't drive up everyone's insurance rates. But Lewis said he'd be open to keeping a variant of the premium-subsidy system created by the Affordable Care Act. He argued that some "safety net" is necessary but that such a safety net would be cheaper with a more stable market.
"If you go back to a market-based system, you're going to need those much and much less," Lewis said.
Lewis says the national economy is held down by a "regulatory assault" and "tax code nonsense" and would promote efforts to limit regulations and cut taxes in response.
On the regulation side, he backs the "REINS Act," a measure requiring Congress to approve any federal regulations with more than $100 million of impact on the national economy. Currently, agencies' regulations have to be based on an existing law but don't have to go back to Congress for approval.
Lewis acknowledges that many regulations have both benefits and costs to the country and wants more effort to study the impact before a regulation goes into effect.
Craig agrees there are too many regulations on businesses and wants to eliminate duplication in the federal code, but she doesn't go as far as Lewis on the subject.
She doesn't back the REINS Act and believes it could be a mistake for Congress to interfere too much with how agencies implement laws. But she said Congress needs to be more careful and specific when it writes laws, so agencies are limited in what regulations they're allowed to implement.
On taxes, Craig backs a mixture of proposals. She'd increase payroll taxes on people earning more than $250,000 per year to pay for Social Security but would try to reduce corporate taxes.
She's particularly enthusiastic about finding a way to bring home the roughly $2.5 trillion that U.S. companies keep overseas because of the high U.S. corporate tax rate.
Craig's plan would let corporations bring that money back to the U.S. at a reduced tax rate — if they agreed to spend it hiring more employees, building infrastructure or on research and development.
"That would allow us to bring back those dollars and put the private sector back to work on economic development," Craig said.
Lewis would pursue bigger changes to the tax code. The federal income tax is currently progressive, which means the tax rate rises from 10 percent to 39.6 percent as a filer's income goes up. Lewis believes in a flat tax, where everyone pays the same percentage on their taxable income.
He says he's not "all-or-nothing" but will back any measures he can to reduce the number of tax brackets and simplify the tax code.
"I do think it needs to be on a flatter, fairer rate that everybody pays at a lower rate, than a ridiculously higher rate that if you've got a connection on K Street you can get out from paying," Lewis said, referring to the Washington, D.C., street where many lobbyists are based.
Craig would promote a more aggressive foreign policy while having a more open refugee policy, while Lewis would do the opposite.
"We need to make certain there's a clear and distinct national security threat ... before we do go into some of these places," Lewis said, criticizing President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton as "archetypal interventionists."
Unusual for a Republican, he supported Obama's deal with Iran and believes the U.S. should prioritize targeting Sunni Muslim extremists in the Middle East, even if it means working with Iran or Middle Eastern dictators.
Domestically, Lewis backs across-the-board spending cuts — including at the Department of Defense. He said the Defense Department needs to cut waste but not "military readiness" — though he acknowledged one person's waste is sometimes another's vital expenditure.
Craig supports a more active foreign policy: "being a leader to make sure that terrorism is both stopped and doesn't spread back into the United States."
That includes military efforts against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, as well as an aggressive use of foreign aid to accomplish "national security" and "strategic" and "economic" goals.
She opposes across-the-board spending cuts, particularly as they affect the Pentagon, and says spending reductions should happen on a targeted basis.
In terms of national security, Lewis focuses on the risk he says refugees from Syria and other war-torn Middle Eastern countries could pose if admitted to the U.S.
"The single best thing we can do on Homeland Security is control who gets into the country and who doesn't," Lewis said. He was highly skeptical of the ability of "vetting" to identify which refugees might be terrorists or have sympathies with terrorist groups.
Craig says the U.S. needs to be vigilant about the potential that terrorists could enter the country as refugees but believes that risk can be mitigated through screening. She says the country should let in vetted refugees, including from Syria, to "stay true to our values."
She said the U.S. should focus on outreach to immigrant groups already here who might be vulnerable to terrorist recruitment, which starts with "making sure those communities don't think we hate them" by avoiding anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Asked to volunteer another issue priority aside from health care, the economy and national security, Craig talked about Social Security and Medicare. Both entitlement programs are on track to run out of money in the next 15 years.
Craig believes her efforts to bring down health prices will help Medicare's fiscal situation.
To fix the Social Security fiscal imbalance, the U.S. needs either to reduce entitlement spending or increase the revenue flowing in. Craig says she rules out the former for Social Security: no benefit cuts or raising the retirement age. Instead, she would change the 12.4 percent Social Security tax currently imposed on the first $118,500 of income. Craig would apply that tax to all income over $250,000, though not income between $118,500 and $250,000.
Lewis highlighted a question of political process: restoring "constitutional governance."
As a member of Congress, Lewis would prioritize strengthening Congress compared to the presidency and strengthening states compared to the federal government. He says one reason for many government regulations is that Congress has "abdicated their authority" and passed vague laws that let executive branches fill in the blanks. He'd also encourage or even "demand" explicit Congressional authorizations for the use of military force instead of deferring to the president to send forces into harm's way.
While discussing this issue, Lewis acknowledged a limitation that would apply to both his and Craig's policy agendas if they're elected Nov. 8: They'd be just one representative out of 435, with limited power to accomplish anything alone.
"All you can do is step up, speak your piece, and hopefully it catches on," Lewis said.