Congressman Bruce Braley, a Democratic candidate for one of Iowa’s United States Senate seats, held a meeting in Knoxville on Monday.
Braley is the only Democrat to have entered the race thus far. He is seeking to succeed fellow Democrat Tom Harkin following the 2014 general election. Harkin announced earlier this year that he would not seek reelection.
In an interview with the Journal-Express, Braley said he and Harkin share a lot of similarities, but the two differ on some issues. He said, like Harkin, he believes in the importance of providing the “ladder” to help others succeed in life, and he also cherishes his small-town background.
Braley grew up in Brooklyn, the son of a World War II veteran who was injured in a grain elevator accident. Growing up with Braley in Brooklyn was Knoxville’s own West Elementary Principal Mike Montgomery. Montgomery said he believes his old friend would make a good Senator. Braley’s brother also used to work in Knoxville at the VA Medical Center.
Braley earned a degree at Iowa State University before attending law school at the University of Iowa. He then went into practice in Waterloo, before choosing to run for the US House of Representatives in 2006. He has served in Congress since then.
As the son of a man unable to work due to injury, Braley believes it is important for the government to provide a safety net for families while they try to find a better life. When asked about creating too much dependency on government, he said that is always a concern. He believes today’s high numbers of unemployed and those on government programs are due to economic circumstances. Much like recovery from the Great Depression took several years, Braley believes recovery from the 2008 economic collapse will continue to take time.
As Reuters reported, 97 percent of the jobs created in America in 2013 are considered part-time. New regulations regarding employees who work over 30 hours per week are in place though the 2010 health care law may be one of the causes of this trend. Braley supported the law and continues to stand by his decision.
According to Braley, prior to the law’s passage, employers and families alike dealt with double-digit health insurance increases every year. In the past two years, since the law has begun to be implemented, those costs have been less than 4 percent. He said he has also seen benefits from requiring health insurance companies to spend 80 percent of their income on health care.
Wellmark, one of the largest health insurers in Iowa, was already spending 90 percent of its income on health care before the law. Braley believes that the problem with Wellmark and United Health Care is that these two companies insure 95 percent of Iowans. The lack of competition has made it difficult for Iowans to find alternatives. One of the goals of the health care law is to create more competition and diversity in every state, in the hopes of bringing down costs, according to Braley.
In his business, prior to his Congressional run, Braley said his health insurance costs increased by 45 percent the year before his campaign. Braley said America spends $3 trillion each year on health care, and he believes that is too much, when compared to other industrialized nations.
The rules governing the health care law are still being written. According to Braley, this is standard procedure for agencies to determine the rules after Congress passes a bill and the President signs it into law.
An amendment, filed by Iowa’s Sen. Charles Grassley, requires Congress members and their staff to purchase their health insurance through the same exchanges everyone else does. However, the Office of Personnel Management chose earlier this month to allow these highly paid Washington insiders to receive federal subsidies to help them purchase health insurance.
In the years since the law was passed, exemptions have been given to numerous large corporations and unions from the law. Earlier this year, President Obama unilaterally chose to delay an employer mandate for one year. A vote was held after the President’s decision.
“I think that (the President’s) responsibility was to see that it was enforced,” Braley said. He added that it is his belief that the President made the best decision, based upon the evidence available to him. Braley has concerns about the President possibly overstepping his bounds, but ultimately, sided with the decision.
“I voted to support the President’s decision,” Braley said.
Braley said he did read the law before voting on it. He had his copy marked as he traveled to 17 town hall meetings in 2010, prior to a vote.
During a time, years ago, when Knoxville Mayor Don Zoutte was pushing to keep inpatient services at the VA Medical Center, Braley attended a rally in support of the cause. As it stands today, Braley said he would like to give local residents the ability to utilize the facility and make it an asset to the area once again.
Braley was asked his opinion of the VA’s decision to transfer inpatients from Knoxville, and in turn, spend over $30 million on a new facility in Des Moines. He did not want to comment, as the decision was made and actions taken.
“It is what it is at this point,” Braley said. He said he was offered many reasons to invest in Des Moines. After all of the effort made to keep Knoxville’s hospital open, Braley believes it is not helpful to go back and second-guess the VA’s decision.
Braley touts his support of veterans, including a story of visiting Walter Reed Medical Center. Walter Reed is a Department of Defense facility, not VA. He was impressed by the young men and women he met there.
Braley supports the investment in community-based VA care. It provides closer access to care for veterans. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will have different needs, in terms of prosthetics. Braley wants to be sure that these veterans get the replacements they need, and the different kinds of prosthetics necessary for different activities, to allow them to live their lives to the fullest. In the long run, Braley believes, this community involvement and this kind of support will be less expensive to taxpayers. More integration into the community should lead to less VA dependence.
The services the VA does provide must be “top-notch,” according to Braley. This includes mental and physical health services.
Braley was asked if the VA system should be discontinued, to allow veterans to seek care in the private sector using veterans’ insurance. He believes this idea may work in concept, but believes that having the VA system in place, after the Vietnam War, led to improvements in health care that were followed by the private sector.
According to Braley, “farming out” health care services for veterans, to private sector providers, will disallow the government to control costs and ensure quality of care for veterans. He believes the VA’s move toward community-based outpatient clinics is working and will continue to be the best route to care for veterans in the future.
Braley’s stop in Knoxville came shortly after his return from Israel. He said seeing the border between Israel and Palestine, which is quite small, really gave him a deeper sense of the security issues faced by those in the region. During his visit, Braley also met with the Prime Minister, President and Principal Negotiator for Palestine. Braley said he has a deep appreciation for Secretary of State John Kerry’s work to bring Israel and Palestine back to the negotiation table.
Turmoil continues to exist in the Middle East, and Braley was asked how involved America should be in these situations. Braley believes that America is fatigued because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but did not rule out support for American intervention.
“I see (fatigue) in the faces of parents of soldiers,” Braley said. With power shifting and the coup in Egypt, Braley said it can be difficult to determine who in the Middle East is a friend or an enemy. If we choose sides, we learn quickly. Braley believes there is a fine line between getting involved in these conflicts too quickly and soon enough to temper a situation.
Braley said he wants to continue to digest things as they move forward. He said the world is facing a murky situation, without a clear path forward.
Closer to home, Braley is still unhappy with the majority party in his chamber for passing a Farm Bill that did not include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP – formerly food stamps).
“A lot of us were shocked when it didn’t pass,” Braley said. He added that there are several Republicans who are also upset at the way the bill was passed. The current Farm Bill expires Sept. 30, and there are only nine legislative days scheduled in Congress between now and then.
Speaker John Boehner told Braley that he does not intend to bring a Farm Bill, that includes SNAP, to the floor unless there was majority support. Braley said he continues to encourage Boehner to bring a bill to the floor, either one from the House or the Senate version.
United States Department of Agriculture data indicate that there were over 46 million people who received SNAP benefits in 2012, at a cost of over $78 billion. In 2007, the year Braley first began to serve in Congress, there were 26.5 million people on SNAP and the cost was $33 billion.
Braley said he “strongly believes” in the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which reads, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
In his opinion, Braley believes there should be a reasonable interpretation between the right to bear arms and having a safe society. He believes there should be work done to reduce gun violence and that criminals should not be able to purchase weapons at a gun show without a background check. Iowa is among the states that do require these checks to purchase handguns.
Braley also blames the mental health system for failures that result in gun-related tragedies. He believes that until these variables are addressed, gun tragedies will continue.
When asked whether or not forcing gun owners to register their weapons violated Second Amendment rights, Braley said he does not believe it is an infringement on rights. If you look back in history, Braley said, pioneer towns in the Old West used to require people to check their weapons in with the sheriff upon arrival. In today’s world, Braley believes that tracking weapons and having a licensure procedure is similar to that of requiring drivers to demonstrate an understanding of vehicles and laws.
The National Rifle Association has given Braley an “F.” The NRA also endorsed Braley’s opponent in the 2012 election.
Regardless of the issue, Braley was posed with a “what if” question. What if the President and his party want him to vote one way, but his constituents in Iowa want him to vote another?
Braley said there is a “great misunderstanding” about being able to pull people together. He believes that when one is elected, the public expects one to study the issues and vote according to what he or she believes is best for the country. To gauge the public’s feelings on an issue, Braley said there are numerous avenues for people to get in touch with their Senators and Representatives. Accountability to the public, communicating with constituents and making informed decisions are things that Braley does not take lightly.
“I take that responsibility very seriously,” Braley said.
Braley’s campaign website is www.brucebraley.com.