News Local/State

Democratic Congressional Candidate Ebel Discusses Tax Policy, More

Headshot of Jon Ebel.

Jon Ebel is running for the Democratic nomination in Illinois' 13th Congressional District. L. Brian Stauffer/University of Illinois

Jon Ebel is one of four candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in Illinois' 13th Congressional District. The winner of the March 2018 primary will face incumbent Republican Rodney Davis in the general election.

Also seeking that nomination are Dr. David Gill of Bloomington, Erik Jones of Edwardsville, and Betsy Londrigan of Springfield.

Ebel is a Navy veteran, and a professor of religion at the University of Illinois Urbana campus.

Illinois Public Media's Brian Moline spoke with Ebel about several topics. A lightly edited transcript of their conversation is below.

Q: The hot topic as we talk here on this Thursday is the new tax plan being proposed by Republicans in Congress and the Trump administration. From what you've seen of the proposal that was rolled out yesterday (Wednesday) what are your thoughts?

A: Well my thoughts are that this is more of the same. It's the same old same old approach to taxation, which is to place the burden on those who are least able to bear it: the middle class and working class in the United States, and to give the fruits to those who are at the top end of the income spectrum. Of course we haven't seen much in the way of detail, and in policy the devil is always in the details, but from the broad strokes that people are talking about, and that I've heard coverage on on your station and read around, it's looking to me a lot like the Reagan plan and the Bush plan. And not only do we see the parallels there, but we can then sort of look forward to what the consequences of those are going to be, and it is going to be the cost borne by those who are at least able to do it.

Q: One of the things that has been talked about in that plan is doubling the standard deduction for most taxpayers in the United States. Would that not perhaps benefit those at the lower end and the middle of the tax spectrum?

A: Well, in theory, yes, but the benefit there isn't commensurate with the benefit that's being given to those at the top end, and you're also then presupposing someone who is paying income tax. And there's a large portion of the poorest people in our society who do not. And so if you really want to help them, the sorts of taxes that we need to lighten up are payroll taxes, and perhaps some consumption based taxes.

Q: Well, if we had the Jon Ebel tax plan proposed, what might that look like?

A: I would start with a few things that have been on the table for a long time, and somewhat ironically something that Donald Trump talked about on the on the campaign trail but that we haven't seen (no real surprise there), which is to close the carried interest loophole, to start treating capital gains and carried interest as actual income, and taxing those at the rates that high income earners, those who are in the relative tax bracket there are already paying.

Q: You mentioned on a couple of occasions here payroll taxes. Of course, those go directly into the Social Security program. How do you go about perhaps reducing that payroll tax burden on some of those in the lower brackets, without negatively affecting Social Security and Social Security benefits?

A: That's a great question. And to be honest with you, Brian, I don't have a good, clear answer for that. What I'm learning as I'm out campaigning and studying policy is that there is no one straightforward answer, and that every policy that we that we make is going to cost some people some things, and is going to benefit other people. I'm a lifelong learner. As an educator, I would be open to hearing all kinds of ideas, and always though being aware that the history of tax policy in the United States is one that has disadvantaged those who are least able to bear the burdens of taxation. I do take very seriously the commitments that we make as a government and a society to Social Security, to Medicare, to Medicaid. And those would be programs that I would prefer to see expanded, not contracted.

Q: Health care policy is certainly also getting a lot of discussion. We're coming up on the open enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act exchanges for the upcoming year. There have been several different proposals that have worked their way to varying degrees through Congress this year. None of them have become law as of yet. In terms of what you've seen from the Republican plans for for health care so far this year what issues do you have with them?

A: The fundamental issue that I have all of them is that they're ruinous. They damage people's lives, they damage their ability to access the care that we all need. And I don't think the Congressional Budget Office has found any single Republican plan that does anything other than than kick tens of millions of people into an uninsured status. And to me that's morally reprehensible. We need to be insuring and covering more people not fewer. And the Republicans so far have not proposed any plan that comes close to doing that. It's sort of like the tax proposals that we've got.

We know what the what the end is going to look like of these policies. It's going to go back to to an open market where there are between 70 and 90 million people in this country who are not insured. And we need to be moving in the other direction. So, I frankly I don't see anything that's that's redeeming in any of these plans, and it's galling to me that our congressman Rodney Davis has been not just a party to them. He has been a vocal advocate for the for these programs that would damage people, damage communities, damage rural hospitals. It's really it's shameful.

Q: I think even most Democrats have conceded that there are some issues with the Affordable Care Act that need to be rectified. What issues do you see with that legislation, and how do you go about fixing them?

A: Well, the issue that I have is that not enough people are covered, and the issues that people are pointing to now have been exacerbated by the administration in the last eight months, which has been giving mixed at best signals about their commitment to to law in this case. So, to me it's a problem of the of the end result, what I want to get to, and what we as a nation I believe need to get to, is a case where every child can see a doctor, where every elderly person can get the meds and the care that they need, and the path to that. I'm sure there are there are multiple paths. And as a pragmatic person I'm open to hearing what those solutions are, so long as someone can demonstrate to me that we are moving toward 100 percent coverage, 100 percent care in this country. 

Q: Bernie Sanders recently proposed a single payer system in the Senate with I think about 15 co-sponsors from Democrats in the Senate. From what you've seen of the Sanders plan is that something that that you would support?

A: Absolutely. It's similar to HB 676, John Conyers' bill that he's proposed a number of times in the House of Representatives, and the moral goal there is exactly right. But as I said, I'm a pragmatic person, and if people have other ways of getting to 100 percent coverage, 100 percent care, I'd be open to hearing those. And it's not just other legislators, not just other Senators, Congressmen, Congresswomen, who are supportive of single payer. It's almost every primary care doctor that I've talked to who is on the front of people who are on the frontlines of care, whether it's an emergency room or in internal medicine clinics, pediatric clinics. They look at single payer as the way to get all of their all of their patients covered, and not unimportant, to have clinics and hospitals paid for the care that they're providing.

Q: Again, with a plan of that size and scope, obviously that will cost a lot of money. And what are your thoughts on how to pay for a new program of that scope?

A: What I see when I look at the money involved in health care in America today is ample resources to cover a single payer system. Reducing costs will obviously be important, but we're dealing with highly inflated costs already, especially in the realm of big pharma and drug prices. I think that the the amount of money that's already circulating is 17 percent or so of the GDP. It would be more than enough to get everybody the care that they need to get the hospitals and doctors paid for the care that they're providing, and to get this great nation to the place that is that is morally correct, and that we we spend a lot of time thinking about what is fiscally possible. And I get that.

But I think it's time for us to temper our judgment about what's fiscally possible with what is morally proper. And as I said earlier it's shameful to me to look around a country and see families who are bankrupted by a chronic illness. And there but for the grace of God go I. All of us, if we look around, and we're honest with ourselves, we would want care for our loved ones. We would want care for our neighbors. And yet somehow it remains OK to deny that care to 30 million Americans, 60 million Americans, depending on who you're talking to.

Q: Another subject that certainly is is generating a lot of discussion this year is immigration. Most recently the Trump administration's decision to end the DACA program over the next six months. What do you think the the proper solution would be for those for those people who are currently DACA recipients here in our country?

A: I think they need a pathway to citizenship. And frankly, I'm a little tired of hearing them referred to as Dreamers. What they are are workers, moms, dads, students, contributors, and they are doing everything that our society ought to ask of someone who wants to be a citizen here, and and they without question, without flinching, should have a pathway to citizenship.

Q: Also, of course, there was a lot of discussion in the last presidential campaign about a border wall. I'm not necessarily looking at your thoughts on the wall itself. I think I know what those are. But in terms of border security, what more could be, should be done to deter people from coming across the border into the United States illegally.

A: That's a great question, and like all of these issues, it's a complicated matter. And of course, every nation has a right to security within its borders. I think that we would do well to, not as the Trump administration is doing, reduce the possibility of legal immigration, but expand it, and also expand the availability of worker visas. One of the things that has been unspoken often and unacknowledged is the depth of the dependence of our economy on undocumented labor. And these are people who come to the United States to help with harvest, and are circulating the harvest in California, who are working in the service sector, and are doing really valuable work in our in our economy. So, I think we could go a long way in terms of policy to recognize their importance.

I would like to see an expansion of legal immigration too, to keep up the policies that have created a brain drain in other parts of the world, and have brought those great minds and all of their talents to this country to contribute. That to me is a strength. We are a nation of immigrants. We are a nation that has grown and prospered when it has not just allowed, but encouraged immigration. I see that as the future. My grandparents on my mother's side were refugees from Hitler's Germany. And they found a place here. They found a prosperous lifestyle. They worked hard, they contributed. And their story is not an isolated one. I'm a historian. I know that American history is the history of immigration. I also know as I look at history that walls, Brian, are for cowards, that walls are the things that regimes build when they're feeling uncertain, when they're feeling unstable, when they don't believe in their core principles. And I don't know when it was that Americans stopped cheering for the people who were climbing walls and tearing them down, and started cheering for the people who wanted to build more.

Q: North Korea is also generating a lot of discussion right now with some of the back and forth between Kim Jong-Un and President Trump. As you look at that situation, how do you think that situation could and should be resolved?

A: Well, by way of a bit of background, I am a Navy veteran. I was an intelligence officer, and my first assignment was to the commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Korea. That was in 1994 and Kim Il Sung was still the leader of North Korea at the time. He died during my time there and Kim Jong Il became the leader. We were sure at that point that what was going to happen was the country was going to collapse, and there had been an ongoing famine. The narrative there has always has long been one of instability and collapse. I think most policy prescriptions that deal with North Korea need to begin with the insight that the goal of all North Korean policy is regime survival. Full stop. What Kim Jong Un wants right now is to survive personally and for his regime to survive.

Now, I find his regime morally reprehensible. I don't like the guy much at all, from what I've seen and read about him. But his goal is not to expand his influence. It's not to conquer. It's to simply survive. As we look at that situation, it strikes me as wrong headed and reckless to be making noises about destroying North Korea, which is I think backing him into a corner, and you are sharply restricting the range of policy options that we can exercise. So the way ahead there is a diplomatic way. It's a way of negotiation, and limiting influence, and leaning hard on China leaning, hard on Russia, countries that we don't agree with in lots of ways, but do have skin in the game in the broader world. And asking them to do what they can to restrict the influence of this, morally quite problematic regime, but one that would be reckless for us to provoke to war because I lived this. There are 30,000 American service people and families and contractors within 50 kilometers of the demilitarized zone, and any sort of conflict with North Korea would begin with an intense artillery attack on the city of Seoul. And I don't think the world is ready for what that would look like. Certainly I'm not.

Q: I guess the counter to that would be that the negotiations, the discussions with North Korea over the past 20, 25 years have not really produced the desired results of them dialing down their weapons programs, their nuclear program. So why not try something different? What would your response be to that?

A: Tell me what the different try is going to be. Let's look at what the policy would be, and if it involves a preemptive strike on North Korea? Absolutely not. You know, our our world now has been shaped, I think for the worse by a couple of, and one in particular, preemptive war. And the lives of our of our servicemen and servicewomen are precious, not to be expended in a situation where the diplomatic options have not been exhausted, where there are other policy options that we could continue to try that would not include the violence of war. I'm not a pacifist. I understand that we live in a dangerous world. I understand that that military force needs to be used in certain circumstances. I do not see North Korea as one of those circumstances.

Q: As I mentioned at the start of our conversation here, you're one of four candidates running for the Democratic nomination in the 13th district. From what you know of those other three individuals, why are you the right choice to represent your party in the upcoming election?

A: I want to begin by saying that the other three candidates who remain are strong, good people, and I think that all of us want what's best for this district. The question is who is prepared to get that done. And I am the candidate in the field who stands outside of the structures of influence, and the structures of power, the political ecosystem of Illinois and of Washington. I think what oftentimes gets in the way of good policy decisions and advocacy of policies that will actually benefit families is the incursion of big corporate money, of dark money into politics and the confusing of where one's loyalties lie, or ought to lie, and that is not a problem with me. I know where I stand. I have a strong moral compass, and I as I said, I stand outside of the structures that have been damaging on both sides of the aisle.

It would be good to have more people in government who are coming from different sorts of backgrounds, different sorts of professional training, different perspectives. I am a fresh voice, fresh face but I'm not new to service. As I mentioned, I spent a total of 11 years in the Navy. Four of those on active duty, seven in the reserves. I taught Internet literacy in public schools on the South Side of Chicago. I teach now at this amazing land grant university here,and I have a taste for service. As an educator, I think I speak for all educators, we're not in it for the money. We're not in it for the glory. We're in it because it's meaningful work. And I am absolutely prepared to take on that meaningful work.