Brian Bengs- South Dakota – US Senate
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
I grew up in a working-class family in a small, Northwest Iowa town. My mother stayed home with my brother and me until we were older, then worked part-time as a waitress at a local cafe. My father worked as a union machinist at a nearby factory.
I entered the U.S. Navy immediately after high school. Upon completion of my military service, I returned to Iowa to pursue a bachelor’s degree in history from Iowa State University where I met my wife of 26 years. I then attended law school at the University of Iowa. After passing the bar exam, I entered the U.S. Air Force JAG Corps where I spent 19 years living and working all over the U.S., as well as in Japan, Germany, Kuwait, and Qatar. During my military career, I also completed a master’s degree in history at Louisiana Tech and an LLM (Master of Laws degree) in International Law at George Washington University.
Why are you running for office?
I am not a politician and did not plan on running for office, but after seeing John Thune essentially brush aside the severity of the January 6th attacks, I could not let him run unopposed. I also believe that our democracy functions at its best when the people are given a choice as to who they want representing them
What are the three biggest issues facing your community?
The meta problems I’ve identified overlap considerably in their impact on our society. As a result, my proposed solutions are also connected.
1) Democracy – It’s no secret that regular Americans are priced out of government because money is the singular focus of politicians. Huge sums of money are required for any candidate to have a real chance of winning. Failure to raise such ever-increasing amounts practically guarantees a loss in party primaries and general elections. Even considering running for office is a question of money as most Americans cannot afford to support themselves if they are not working. Thus, money is the ultimate filter for politicians. It has a powerful, adverse influence on how our government operates.
The unquenchable need for money inherently disadvantages candidates who advocate ideas unacceptable to the affluent donor class or corporate interests. At the same time, the collection process alters a candidate’s priorities and policy stances because constantly contacting wealthy donors provides a skewed perspective. Once in office, money buys access to the officials who must now think about funding a reelection campaign. Money doesn’t just offer donors the chance to express ideas or support a candidate; it provides leverage to reshape American society and the economy in their favor. We are now at a point when the interests of Big Money are increasingly in conflict with the concept of representative democracy, and the future of our country is uncertain.
2) Taxation – The affluent and large corporations make significant investments in politics to improve their economic position. Lower tax rates offer them a clear benefit. A consequence of the uncompromising pursuit of lower taxes by and for the affluent is enduring deficits and inadequate funding for public goods (law enforcement, schools, roads, etc). As a result, the U.S. is falling behind global competitors in infrastructure and education. Without restoration of a truly progressive tax system in which the ultra-wealthy pay higher actual tax rates than regular Americans, public goods will continue to deteriorate to the detriment of a substantial and growing number of Americans.
3) Jobs – Rapid advancements in automated intelligence and artificial intelligence technology will fundamentally alter the U.S. job market over the next 10 to 20 years. Earlier this year, John Deere debuted a tractor that doesn’t need a driver. Freight hauling companies are pursuing similar technology to eliminate the need for truck drivers. Meat processing companies are implementing robotic automation to minimize the need for workers. Similarly, fast food restaurants are installing robot cooks that can identify specific foods, pick them up, and cook them in designated fry baskets before placing the finished product into a holding area.
Physical activities in controlled and predictable surroundings are most prone to automation. Such activities comprise roughly 50% of American jobs worth nearly $3 trillion in wages. The increased productivity and cost reduction of automation are obviously quite appealing to businesses. Nevertheless, the potential adverse impact on American society and the economy is hard to underestimate. For example, payroll taxes collected from workers fund the Social Security and Medicare benefits of current retirees as well as the unemployment benefits of the currently unemployed. Robots are not paid, so the potential decline in payroll taxes will jeopardize the sustainability of Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance. Income tax revenue will also decline dramatically as unpaid machines replace a large percentage of American workers while simultaneously serving as a tax deduction for businesses.
How do you propose to solve those problems?
1) Democracy – It is impossible to completely remove the influence of money in American politics. Nevertheless, I support a constitutional amendment overturning the malign Citizens United v. FEC (2010) decision and restoring the ability of campaign finance laws to limit the influence. I also support neutralizing the disproportionate influence of the affluent and corporate donors by granting citizens across the economic spectrum a practical ability to support candidates with “democracy vouchers.” Every registered voter would get $100 each year to contribute in $25 increments to a candidate(s) of their choice. The more people who support a candidate would thus translate to more of the necessary financial support. In 2016, South Dakota voters adopted a bill providing each voter with two $50 vouchers they could give to state candidates. Although promptly repealed by a hostile state legislature, the concept is clearly politically viable. Aside from the money issue, I also support a constitutional amendment prohibiting gerrymandering. I support Rep. Sarbanes’ H.R. 1, the For the People Act. This transformational piece of legislation focuses on anti-corruption and election reform.
2) Taxation – Wealth should not have preferred status over hard-working middle-class Americans in our tax code. Accordingly, if elected to the Senate, I will advocate for a tax code that is genuinely progressive in that the affluent pay a higher actual tax rate than regular folks, and large corporations actually pay taxes. The dire prospect of extraordinarily high unemployment resulting from accelerating automation requires a more efficient concept of taxation based upon the economic value of increased productivity created by automation. A value-added tax must be considered as it offers the best possibility of raising revenue to counteract the societal harm resulting from automation.
3) Jobs – Our country is quickly changing. Automation has the potential to completely alter the ways Americans work. We need to ensure that our government is ahead of the curve so it can guide changes rather than simply reacting to limit the harm. I will work proactively with business and labor leaders developing innovative policies to smooth the transition to automation. New approaches to training, education, and social safety nets must be studied and implemented.
What is your stance on environmental and climate concerns that are facing your community?
American energy independence is a national security issue that overlaps substantially with the climate issue. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is simply the most recent in a string of events dating back to the 1973 OPEC oil embargo highlighting American dependence upon foreign actors. Protecting our economy from the adverse consequences of overseas events is best accomplished by reducing our reliance upon oil as much as possible. Thus, maximizing the development and implementation of clean energy sources offers a unique two-for-one return on our investment that I will aggressively pursue. National security matters traditionally receive higher priority than environmental matters, so reframing clean energy as a solution to such an issue will increase attention and funding.
In the years to come, South Dakota will face more extreme heat, drought, and flooding. Nearly 45,000 South Dakotans will face increased flood risk due to more frequent, heavier downpours. South Dakota is home to the third-most-active winds in the U.S. However, if we pursue the right policies, we can harness South Dakota’s energy potential in ways other than gas. It is precisely that attribute that gives South Dakota the potential to be a 21st-century American energy leader. As Senator, I will advocate for recurring, annual decreases in fossil fuel subsidies that transfer the value to wind and solar instead. To account for the inconsistent nature of such energy production, I will also support an overhaul of the increasingly outdated U.S. electrical grid to use more innovative design and storage capacity to offset such limitations.
What commonsense gun safety measures would have the most impact on your community?
Gun violence is increasing in South Dakota, much like it is across the country. For too long, not enough has been done. Some solutions I support that would reduce gun violence include requiring every gun buyer (including at gun shows) to pass a criminal background check, removing the prohibition on gun violence research by the CDC, limiting the size of ammunition clips, ensuring bump stocks remain banned, and enacting Red Flag laws that would allow relatives and law enforcement to temporarily remove firearms from an individual in crisis.
How would criminal justice reforms impact your community?
Like many states, South Dakota’s jails and prisons have a disproportionate number of POC in them. Fulfilling the will of the voters who passed a ballot initiative to legalize recreational marijuana in 2020 would be an excellent first step. I also support President Biden’s plan to make sure our police departments have the resources they need to properly address the diverse situations that arise. The same officers responding to violent crime incidents do not and should not respond to calls for things such as mental health crises where the person who needs help does not pose a threat to anyone but themselves.
How would you work to protect a woman’s reproductive health?
With Roe v. Wade almost certainly being overturned in the near future, we need to protect women’s access to reproductive healthcare. Codifying protections in the Women’s Health Protection Act is an inadequate solution that would result in on-again, off-again protections depending upon which party controls Congress and the White House. I support a constitutional amendment explicitly establishing a right to privacy protecting the right to choose.
What measures would you advocate to ensure that your constituents have the right to vote?
I support the For the People Act and its efforts to ban partisan gerrymandering, create new ethics rules for officeholders, and change campaign finance laws so that money does not play as big of a role as it currently does. At the state level, I am against Amendment C in South Dakota which would change the vote threshold for passage of many citizen-led ballot initiatives from a simple majority to a 60% supermajority.
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