Braley, Ernst Fiscally Divided in Iowa Senate Race

Today, National Taxpayers Union Foundation (NTUF) released line-by-line analyses of where U.S. Congressman Bruce Braley (D-IA) and Iowa State Senator Joni Ernst (R) could take the federal budget if elected as Iowa’s new Senator. The two candidates have made a lot of claims on the campaign trail -- both in favor of their own platform proposals and in opposition to their opponent’s policy aims -- but neither has much in the way of detail regarding how those promises would change government spending. This reflects an ongoing and concerning trend of candidates speaking of the ends they seek without detailing the means they would need.

For over 14 years, NTUF has conducted studies of House, Presidential, and Senate campaigns as a service to educate taxpayers and to show candidates exactly how their platforms would affect public spending. We take direct quotes from debates and interviews, as well as content from the candidates’ own websites, and match these items with proposed legislation, cost estimates from third party sources (like the Congressional Budget Office and the Congressional Research Service), and budgetary documents. Now, on to the findings in the Iowa Senate race.

Congressman Bruce Braley (D)

NTUF identified 12 budget-influencing policies proposed in Congressman Braley’s campaign statements. Five would increase spending and seven were not quantifiable. Though some of these measures could decrease outlays, none of them could be matched with bills that he has sponsored, cosponsored, or otherwise indicated support for. On net, federal spending would increase by $41.9 billion each year if Rep. Braley’s scorable proposals were enacted. This would lead to a $175.5 billion growth in the federal budget over five years.

Largest Increase: Border Security and Immigration Reform. Congressman Braley said that “protecting America and keepin­g our country safe from terrorism – with secure borders and vigilance against threats – should always be a top focus.” As it happens, he cosponsored an immigration system overhaul bill in the House that was similar to what the Senate passed. Taking only the House version into account, his proposal to better secure the border and reform the system would increase spending by $19.4 billion annually.

Largest Unknown: Combating Climate Change. NTUF was unable to determine exactly what Rep. Braley would support to “tackle our changing climate.” Though he has cosponsored three bills that would in some way promote clean energy and carbon sequestration research, he was not clear on the campaign trail regarding what, if any, comprehensive plan he would vote for. Typically, two schools of thought are competing for Congressional approval in the climate change debate. One is imposing a carbon tax on each ton of greenhouse gas that is emitted, while the other is a cap-and-trade system that would attempt to monetize carbon for companies, states, and/or countries to trade. A carbon tax could raise as much as $1.2 trillion over ten years whereas cap-and-trade could be a $56.5 billion spending increase over five years.

State Senator Joni Ernst (R)

On the other side of the debate, NTUF found that State Sen. Ernst directly supports 18 policies that could change current spending. Three items would increase spending, five would decrease it, and there were ten proposals that had uncertain fiscal impacts. Since she is not a current Member of Congress, NTUF compared her quotes and campaign materials to budgetary data, Congressional testimony, and legislation introduced by fellow Republicans and scored under the BillTally project. For over 20 years, BillTally has been the only comprehensive research project that scores nearly every measure proposed in Congress for possible changes in spending. Taking State Sen. Ernst’s 18 proposals into account, NTUF determined that her platform would decrease spending by a net $87.1 billion each year.

Largest Increase: Border Security and Migrant Worker Programs. When it comes to immigration, State Sen. Ernst has called to secure the borders, establish a guest-worker program, and ensure that those workers are cleared to be in the country. By comparing her statements and provisions in multiple immigration reform bills, NTUF scored her proposals as a $4.0 billion annual spending increase. This includes $3.7 billion in border security infrastructure improvements, $342 million for the guest-worker program, and $27 million for identification cards associated with those workers.

Largest Decrease: Repeal the Affordable Care Act. On her website, State Sen. Ernst’s campaign wrote that she “supports immediate action to repeal Obamacare …”, which NTUF scored in 2012 as a $36.9 billion annual spending cut. As opposed to how the Congressional Budget Office scored similar repeal measures, NTUF tracked only the changes in spending outlays and did not account for gains or losses in revenues (this is one of the primary features of BillTally). As implementation continues, it is likely that a full repeal of “Obamacare” would result in more reductions.

Largest Unknown: Private Social Security Accounts. One of the more hotly debated policy items in the Iowa race has been whether or not younger workers should be able to invest part or all of their Social Security taxes in individual accounts. Ernst has said that discussions need to occur and broader considerations need to be presented before she will endorse a specific reform. Generally, we have found that these types of reforms are for individuals 55 years and younger, with budgetary impact usually occurring beyond the BillTally project’s five-year window. There are also proposals to create accounts similar to Roth IRAs but administered by the government. Depending on the specific policy, it is possible that spending could change by billions of dollars (as either increases or decreases) over the long term.


Though Braley and Ernst have their differences, they do overlap on a few issues:

  • Border Security: See their “Largest Increases” points above.
  • State Regulation of Cannabis: Both candidates have said that state governments ought to take over policies and enforcement of marijuana, though to what degree remains unknown. This policy could mean that states could regulate medical marijuana or grow industrial hemp without submitting to or applying for federal approval.
  • Operations Against the Islamic State: Both candidates were unclear as to exactly how either would address the rising problem of understanding, combating, and eventually addressing ISIS (or ISIL). The government has dedicated funds through the recently passed Continuing Resolution, and American anti-terrorism forces are currently financed through the Overseas Contingency Operations account.

In the coming weeks, it is likely that political parties, numerous special interest groups, and the candidates themselves will continue to talk about why Congressman Braley or State Senator Ernst will be the best junior Senator for Iowa in 2015. While these two reports give Iowans an idea of the sort of policies the candidates might support in the 114th Congress, both campaigns could stand to offer more detail regarding the costs associated with their proposals. This kind of transparency would help taxpayers better understand what’s at stake in the election, and hold their representatives in Congress accountable for how they spend their tax dollars in Washington.

Check out Bruce Braley's and Joni Ernst's line-by-line reports.