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Kurt Bills fails to give clear answers to basic questions

The presumptive GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate has begun giving interviews – with unsatisfying results.

Kurt Bills

State Rep. Kurt Bills, the presumptive Repub nominee for the U.S. Senate, has begun giving interviews (although not to me, despite repeated requests, which I continue to send to his campaign), but Bills continues to avoid giving clear answers to basic questions about his issue positions.

Bills went on KTCA’s “Almanac” Friday where Kathy Wurzer led off by asking him – since he is known to be an admirer or Congressman Ron Paul and to have won the Repub endorsement largely on the basis of support from the Paulites who took over the convention — to specify the areas, if any, on which he differs from Ron Paul. The verbatim answer:

Rep. Kurt Bills: Yuh, I think you have to look at, again, you agree on fiscal and monetary policy. But you also have to look at foreign policy and be very thoughtful about it. But then also have to bring your own positions to the table as well. Having a strong national defense is very important to me. But then I think it also is to the congressman. And how do you look at foreign aid? And can we just cap foreign aid at some level like Senator Jim DeMint and Sen. Mike Lee and Senator Rand Paul put out? So it’s how can you work with people, stay at the table and keep discussing things.

Let’s pause here. That’s a full paragraph answer. What differences between his views and Rep. Paul’s has he specified? I score zero. For a second there, it sounded like he was going to declare some difference on military spending, but he ended up with the utterly vacuous statement that a “strong national defense” is “very important” to both himself and Rep. Paul.

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Wurzer’s partner (in all things) Eric Eskola, did not point out in his follow-up that Bills had so far failed to identify any differences with Paul. Instead, he went for an area where Paul’s views might be politically awkward for Bills, namely the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Eskola: He’s for changing the U.S. relationship with Israel. I wonder what your view is on the U.S. relationship with Israel.

Bills: I think we’re a strong supporter of Israel when we don’t fund their enemies. When we don’t send foreign aid to countries like Egypt, we just sent $1.3 billion and a load of military equipment to Egypt last month. And that’s where I think we have to more thoughtful.

OK, we get it. Bills favors thoughtfulness (you’ll find that word in his first answer as well). The question was: Should the United States change its relationship with Israel? Bills says that he would cut off (or perhaps just reduce) the aid Washington sends to Egypt, a step that, so far as I know, Israel does not favor. And he identifies as one of Israel’s “enemies” a country that broke the Pan-Arab ban on peace and diplomatic relations with Israel in 1979 and has maintained a cold peace and semi-cooperative relations ever since.

For lack of an opportunity to ask a follow-up question, one might take this non-answer as an effort to avoid addressing the politically fraught issue of whether Bills would – as Ron Paul does – favor a dramatic reduction in U.S. aid to Israel despite the tremendous support on the Republican right for that relationship.

Anyway, in term of describing his position on how (or whether) the United States should change its bilateral relationship with Israel, I would have to score this one a nullity as well. But we did learn that he wants to cut off aid to Egypt.

By the way. I am not selecting questions and answers here to highlight Bills’ evasiveness. Those were the first two questions and answers. Here’s the third (and this time there actually was a follow-up):

Wurzer: Let me ask you a little about abolishing the Federal Reserve. The congressman wants to do that. And I’m going to ask you to clarify your stance. We’ve heard that back at an April forum you said that you would pass a balanced budget bill and would also end the Federal Reserve. Now you and I were talking earlier this week on Minnesota Public Radio and you told me  — you kind of stopped short of saying you would abolish the Federal Reserve. You were talking about reforming it. You want to clarify…

Bills: Sure. Absolutely. You hear a lot of people. Even the chants to “end the Fed.” And I think the first thing you have to do is understand that you’re part of a legislative body. There’s no one man or one woman who’s a dictator within that body, you have to work together with people and think the first thing we have to do is work toward ending the policies that the fed has promoted, specifically over the past four years.

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Wurzer: An example…?

Bills: As an example, end the dual mandate system. We currently have a central bank that has a dual mandate system of promoting full employment, which came in in the 1970s, and maintaining price stability. Currently there’s a Sound Money Act in the House and the Senate.

It came up this year. It’ll come up a little stronger next year. And what that looks at is eliminating that promoting full employment. Because in my opinion, and in my economics study, the Fed cannot handle full employment. The Fed can promote price stability. But when you have a Federal Reserve that’s willing to expand the money base by whatever degree to try to get you to that 5 percent unemployment, that’s dangerous.

So, it sounds like we may actually have a direct answer here. Unlike Paul and his most ardent followers, Bills does not favor abolishing the Fed, but would change its mandate. But if you read it closely, you’ll note that Bills didn’t actually say that he would keep the Fed. And Wurzer picked up on that and decided to see if she could get a clear answer.

Wurzer: So you would not abolish the Federal Reserve. You would tweak it and change it. Is that correct?

Bills: If we could have a different system to run, if we could have a system of where we could have the regional presidents of the Federal Reserve voting on the FOMC [Federal Open Markets Committee], which is also a part of the Sound Money Act, that would be an improvement. Abolishing the fed would take an incredible amount of work and it would also create an incredible amount of volatility at a time globally when I don’t know if financial markets could handle that right now.

Now it seems that Bills, who said in April that he favors ending the Fed, has backed off. But, again, if you read it closely, Bills didn’t quite say that, only implied it. I don’t pretend to be reading Wurzer’s mind, but this seemed to be one area on which she was not willing to settle for an implicit answer, and it turns out to be a good thing she didn’t because when she sought final clarity…

Wurzer: So it sounds like you’ve changed your mind from that April forum to now. Sounds like that’s been a bit of a change for you?

Bills: No, I also think that you can have free market banking. We had a Suffolk system from 1824 till 1858 in this country that worked. It wasn’t actually a system, it was a free market bank that handled the same characteristics that the fed has now, and instead of being the lender of last resort, the Suffolk system used market discipline to handle our monetary policy so I think we see a huge diversity within our United States history of money and banking that we could meld into if that’s part of the process over the next six years.

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Now, one could try to construct a clear answer out of all this on Bills’ views on the Fed. If I had to, I would say he favors abolishing the Fed, but not right away when the world financial system is fragile. So he would favor a change in the Fed’s mandate to eliminate the current language that asks the Fed to use its leverage over the money supply to promote lower unemployment. But in the long run, he would work as a senator to create a different set of circumstances that would make it possible to do away with the Fed entirely and go back to something that existed in the mid-19th century. (By the way, the “Suffolk system,” operated only in the New England states, which I guess could be reconciled with the sentence: “We had a Suffolk system from 1824 till 1858 in this country that worked.” But that’s just a detail. This monetary policy stuff is way above my comfort zone.)

Well, I’m getting uncomfortable with the snotty tone of some of this analysis, but I do believe that the nominee of a major party for a U.S. Senate seat has to be able and willing to communicate his policy views.

There were just three more exchanges in the “Almanac” interview. But in hopes of sneaking away just before I totally wear out my welcome, I’ll just summarize.

Eskola asked about Bills’ ideas for reducing federal spending, but he answered with a complaint about excessive federal regulations and ended that non-answer with: “I think we’ve added too much government. So I think that’s one way to attack the problem is to look at those agencies that are burdensome to business.”

Eskola also brought up entitlement programs. Bills explained with some passion that looking into the eyes of teenagers (he’s a high school teacher) when discussing the unfunded liabilities of the big entitlement programs is “part of the reason why I’m here.”

“These young people want solutions and they want the — the plans are there. We’ve read the ‘Taking Back our Fiscal Future’ that was put out in 2007. My kids read and understand what the Simpson-Bowles group did. These plans are out there. We just have to start talking about them and not worry so much about the next election cycle but worry about that long-run solvency issue.”

Actually, we probably have to go further than just talking about the plans that are out there, like agreeing, maybe even across party lines, on some of them. But that’s just me.

At least in this interview, Bills did not endorse any of the specific proposals in these documents, but he’s absolutely right that the documents do exist. I’d be particularly interested in his views on Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction proposal, since it recommended a mix of two-thirds spending cuts to one-third tax increases. I’d be honored to ask him whether he is open to a deficit/debt reduction plan that includes tax increases.

Lastly, Wurzer asked Bills about privatizing Social Security. He pretty much embraced the idea without any details of the kind of plan he would support and without mentioning the trillions of dollars of transition costs that would be needed to continue benefits for those already on or near retirement once you start allowing younger workers to put their Social Security tax payments into the new private accounts. But I’d have to say he came closer to a commitment to an issue position in his Social Security privatization answer than any of the others.

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Oh, what the heck, here’s the full question and answer; you can decide for yourself whether he took a position:

Wurzer: Some people have talked about privatizing Social Security. Would you go for that?

Bills: I actually think that we need to start looking, especially for our young people, to get into a privatized account or something where we lock that money away where the government doesn’t have access to spend that money or mandating the purchasing of treasuries with that money. I think that we do have to have those accounts and I think it’s very important to our young people. Having spoken to them about some of the potential solutions, trust me, young people will let you know what they think the way forward is and that would be one of them.

You can watch the ”Almanac” interview here.