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Five takeaways from last night's Iowa congressional debate

1st Congressional district candidates, State Rep. Christina Bohannan, left, and U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks take part in a debate at Iowa PBS in Johnston, Monday, Sept. 26, 2022.
Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register
1st Congressional District candidates, state Rep. Christina Bohannan, left, and U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks take part in a debate at Iowa PBS in Johnston on Monday.

Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks and Democrat Christina Bohannan shared a set at Iowa PBS. They discussed issues from prescription drug prices to CO2 pipelines.

Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks and Democratic challenger state Rep. Christina Bohannan squared off Monday in their first and likely only debate.

Miller-Meeks defended her record in the House's minority party, and Bohannan went on the attack over inflation, abortion and prescription drug prices.

They are competing to represent the newly-redistricted Iowa 1st Congressional District. It includes Iowa City, Davenport, Clinton, Oskaloosa, Newton, Burlington and Fort Madison.

Back in 2020, the race for Iowa’s southeastern congressional district came down to just six votes – one of the closest federal elections in U.S. history. While redistricting did cut her hometown of Ottumwa out of the new district, Miller-Meeks is favored to win the 2022 race. The seat is considered “likely Republican” by The Cook Political Report.

Miller-Meeks’ campaign manager Elliot Husband told the Press-Citizen that there was no plan for additional debates, despite Bohannan’s campaign agreeing to two more. Since this may be the last time voters will get a side-by-side comparison of the candidates, here are five moments from last night’s event.

1. Positioning over prescription prices

A provision of the Inflation Reduction Act requires the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to negotiate the price of at least 50 brand-name drugs without generic competitors. That reduced price would then be available to both Medicare and private payers.

Bohannan attacked Miller-Meeks for not supporting the policy.

Miller-Meeks, an ophthalmologist, has been a critic of the government negotiating prices with drug manufacturers and of attempts to cap prices for certain medications. She said she is concerned about the impact on innovation in new research and development.

“There are other ways to bring down drug cost rather than negotiating or price caps. And I think that it's valid to look at those. It's valid to have a conversation to have a bipartisan discussion over how is it best to bring down drug prices, where we still have innovation, we still have new drugs, we still have new cures.”

While concerned about caps, Miller-Meeks broke ranks with Iowa House Republican U.S. Reps. Ashley Hinson and Randy Feenstra to support the Affordable Insulin Now Act. The bill capped the cost of insulin at $35 for a monthly supply under Medicare and private health insurance.

2. Who's more extreme on abortion?

Candidates spent much of Monday night’s debate describing just how bipartisan they are. But the tactic changed when moderators took up the topic of abortion.

“This is a very dangerous path that we are going down it will put women's lives at risk,” Bohannan said. “… And for someone who talks a lot about unnecessary government overreach. She has sure signed on to some pretty terrible bills involving governmental overreach.”

“I think what is extreme and terrible are all of the House Democrats voting for a bill that would permit abortion up until the time of birth,” Miller-Meeks responded. “That's what they voted for, all the Democrats.”

The bill Miller-Meeks mentions is the Women’s Health Protection Act would have restored the right to abortion enshrined in Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case recently overturned by the Supreme Court. The bill does allow for late-term abortions in instances where a mother’s life is in danger. Though, federal and state data show abortions after 21 weeks are uncommon, representing 1 percent of all abortions in the U.S.

Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa, speaks during a debate with State Rep. Christina Bohannan at Iowa PBS in Johnston, Monday, Sept. 26, 2022.
Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register
Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa, speaks during a debate with State Rep. Christina Bohannan at Iowa PBS on Monday.

Bohannan criticized Miller-Meeks for cosponsoring the Life at Conception Act, which would be a total ban on abortion. Though, Miller-Meeks says she does support exceptions for when the life of the mother is in danger or in cases of rape and incest.

Miller-Meeks was asked about her support for Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina’s bill to federally ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Like Graham, Miller-Meeks echoed the idea that 15 weeks polls well and is "the point where a fetus feels pain." There is no scientific consensus on whether or when a fetus can feel pain.

3. The solution to inflation: Decreasing fuel prices

The annual rate of inflation for the United States is 8.3 percent for the last year, according to U.S. Labor Department data. This is hitting Iowans in the grocery store and at the pump, and it’s expected to hit Democrats, the party in power, as they try to maintain control of the House this November. Both candidates were asked what they think should be done to address inflation.

For Miller-Meeks, the solution starts with energy costs. Gasoline prices – while receding until this week – remain high. She recommended reopening the Keystone pipeline and increasing the number of federal land leases for oil production. She argued getting energy prices down now would have spillover effects across the economy.

“So if we can, you know, reassert our energy independence: get oil and gasoline prices down, that also helps food prices because natural gas is used for fertilizer,” she said.

Bohannan also looked to fuel prices but was focused on the industry setting the prices. Despite historic profits of oil and gas companies, the national average price of gas reached $4.45 per gallon, a record high. Bohannan said she supported the Consumer Fuel Price Gouging Prevention Act, which Miller-Meeks opposed. The bill’s proponents argue empowering the Federal Trade Commission to investigate potential instances of price gouging would disincentivize oil companies from limiting production to artificially boost prices. While it cleared the house, the bill has not passed the Senate.

“I would absolutely want to make sure that we are holding companies accountable for price gouging. We also do need an all of the above energy approaches to make America more independent in energy,” she said. “I think renewable energy is going to be a very big part of that and one that can really benefit Iowa because we're already a leader in renewable energy and we can do even more.”

4. Bohannan calls college debt forgiveness ‘too much’

President Joe Biden announced a plan to forgive $20,000 in student debt for Pell Grant recipients making less than $125,000, with $10,000 forgiven for non-Pell borrowers. Nearly 90 percent of relief dollars will go towards borrowers making less than $75,000 a year. According to the Student Borrower Protection Center, nearly 6.5 million rural Americans owed an average of $35,000 in student loan debt. It estimates nearly one in six rural student loan borrowers have fallen into delinquency or default, compared to roughly one in seven nationwide.

“I think that the approach that the Biden administration took was too much,” Bohannan said.

1st Congressional district candidate, State Rep. Christina Bohannan speaks during a debate with Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa at Iowa PBS in Johnston, Monday, Sept. 26, 2022.
Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register
1st Congressional District candidate, state Rep. Christina Bohannan, speaks during a debate with Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks.

She said the focus on one-time debt relief doesn’t accomplish long-term affordability for future generations. Similarly, she was concerned over how debt forgiveness could further incentivize the increase in tuition seen at intuitions like Iowa’s own regent universities.

“I also think it's very important that we think about fairness. That we think about making sure that low-income people are not subsidizing high-income people. That blue-collar workers are not subsidizing white-collar workers. That people who did chose not to go to college or chose not to take out debt aren't subsidizing those who did,” she said.

5. Candidates at odds over CO2 pipelines

Archer Daniels Midland Company, known as ADM, is partnering with Wolf Carbon Solutions on a carbon capture pipeline to transport carbon from ethanol plants in Cedar Rapids and Clinton to ADM sequestration sites in central Illinois.

Like previous CO2 pipeline projects, they are controversial for residents, particularly landowners who happen to be in areas identified in preliminary maps of the project. On this item, candidates were split.

Miller-Meeks said she supported these projects because they extended the viability of the ethanol industry, which props up Iowa corn prices. According to the Iowa Corn Growers Association, 57 percent of Iowa’s corn is processed at an ethanol plant. And while its net carbon impact is debated, in a side-by-side comparison, ethanol-blended fuels reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of unblended petroleum-based gasoline.

Bohannan did not weigh in on the carbon impact of ethanol as a biofuel. She instead said she opposed carbon pipeline projects because of her opposition to its use of eminent domain.

“This is a project where the government would be seizing property and exercising eminent domain for a large corporate project. And you know, I do not think that that is what should happen with property rights in a free country like the United States.

Bohannan, a constitutional law professor at the University of Iowa, said this “corporate use” does not meet her expectations of a “public use.”

Zachary Oren Smith is a reporter covering Eastern Iowa