Intimate Conversations with America’s Change-Makers
Burn the Boats is an award-winning podcast featuring intimate conversations with change-makers from every walk of life. Host Ken Harbaugh interviews politicians, authors, activists, and others about the most important issues of our time.
Hi everyone, it’s Ken. Before we start, I want to share some exciting news: We’ve paired with Meidas Touch, so you can now watch these interviews on YouTube. Just search for the Meidas Touch YouTube channel, or click the link in the show description. Thanks, and enjoy the episode.
…The cloak room, which is sort of a room behind the floor where you could sort of stand in the doorway and wave… You can sort of stand back there and wave and do your thumbs up or thumbs down and the clerk can see you. They wanted me to vote from there. I said, “But I can't get in there because it's steps. I can't roll my wheelchair up there.” And they're like, “Well, those are the only options.”
I said, “Okay. Do you want to welcome you with open arms onto the floor and be seen as supporting women and working mothers? Or do you want to see me crawl on the floor with my baby and my teeth climbing up the steps? Because I'm going to go vote
My guest today is Senator Tammy Duckworth, who just started her second term representing Illinois. She's a fellow vet and a trailblazer in Washington in more ways than one. We'll get some of that. Senator, it is great to talk with you again.
It's good to be on. Thank you.
From where I sit up here in Ohio, it is unnerving to say the least, to watch what is happening in Washington with a Republican house majority giving in to its own extremist fringe. We have no idea the extent of the concessions being made. How worried should we be?
We should be pretty worried. I mean, I was in the house when the Tea Party caucus basically removed Speaker Boehner who was a fairly effective speaker. And I had a great relationship with him. When I came in as a freshman Democrat, he was very generous in accommodating my special needs using a wheelchair, and was always very approachable.
And unfortunately, even in this short amount of time, I feel like that friendliness accommodation, it’s just not as much there. You know, those relationships are not as much there in the houses as they have been in the past. And I'm very worried that Kevin McCarthy is going to find himself being removed from office because he gave those major concessions.
Maybe not necessarily for something that is worthy of that, but just so that the minority in the far right of the MAGA caucus on the Republican side. So, just to flex their muscles to show that they could remove him.
Well, John Boehner, good Ohioan, he gave up because he couldn't handle the nature of his caucus. Paul Ryan gave up, and it's only gotten worse.
But supposedly, the Senate is a safeguard. It's supposed to be different. I'm wondering from your perspective though, are you beginning to see some of the crazy, in fact, the Senate as well. I mean, there have always been the cynics in the Senate, the Ted Cruzs, who don't believe half of what they're saying.
But has the tinfoil hat type of thinking started to work its way to the other side of the Capitol?
On the surface, you would think so, but if you look at, in terms of what has actually passed in the past Congress, I think there was something like six or seven major spending bills. And of those, I think the vast majority of them, I think five or six of them were all bipartisan.
We passed the CHIPS Act, which was bipartisan. We passed the infrastructure deal, which was bipartisan. We passed the CARES Act, that was bipartisan. So, I think you're seeing that happen here in the Senate with the compromises that are being made.
We pass gun legislation and I am much more optimistic over here on the Senate side, and probably because I have really good relationships with many of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle over here, and have been able to pass legislation in a bipartisan way. And I'm starting my second term, but in my first term, I've had some successes.
Well, I read your 2022 year end review report, and you led the charge on quite a bit of that stuff; the Background Check Expansion Act, one that I think is close to a lot of fellow vets that paid parental leave for American troops. Are you getting the credit you deserve for that back at home?
I am. Well, I just got reelected, so I think that people are-
Well, there you go.
I think the people of Illinois like the work that I've done in my first term and have sent me back for a second term, and I'm going to continue to work on that. I'm always going to be very much strong on national security issues.
I mean, you don't spend 23 years in the army and not have the nation's safety and security at the core of everything that you do.
But in order to ensure our nation's security, we have to support the personnel who protect that security, and that's where things like paid family leave and supporting personnel readiness is just as important as making sure we make investments in the next generation of vertical lift aircraft.
And so, for me, I look at national security and the wellbeing of this nation as it's DOD equipment, but it's also DOD personnel, but it's also a strong economy, one that can compete on a global scale as well. And that's where the industrial Midwest is going to play a significant role, moving on into the future.
What do you make of this tendency on the right to attack the military and military personnel for paying attention to diversity and inclusion, and the things that really separate our military from near peers like Russia and China?
I mean, I just can't get over Ted Cruz's fetishizing the Russian recruiting commercials and mocking the American military's recruitment efforts that I think as we're seeing on the battlefields of Ukraine, we've got the right approach.
How do you deal with colleagues with no military experience, by the way, who play armchair general and go after your buddies in uniform?
Yeah, this is where the bipartisanship comes in. There are enough Republicans who will stand up to that who have been my partners in a lot of this. Listen, I was in Illinois National Guard, and I was the first female, first Asian, first woman commander of my Black Hawk unit out of Chicago Midway Airport.
And I remember even before that when I was in the reserves, showing up at Operation Bright Star in Egypt and I'm like the one Asian girl in a unit. I mean, it's Chicago, so it's all Polish and Irish guys in my unit, and people are coming wanting to look at our aircraft. And they're like, they go to like the biggest tallest guy. And then they're like “Can you give us a familiarization with the aircraft and stuff?”
They're like, “Well, you got to go talk to the boss.” And they're like, “Who?” And they pointed it to me and they were like “The little Chinese girl? She's in charge.” They're like, “Yeah, she's the units commander and you got to go talk to her first.”
I think just the presence of diversity within America's military when we show up overseas is a major advantage we have around the world. And the diversity means that we bring so much more to the battlefield than other countries.
And so, I will tell you that I have Republican colleagues who know and understand it, and who stood up with me to oppose the very small minority that want to attack the military for its attempts at diversity.
And frankly, this has always happened, whether it was when we allowed black troops to serve, whether it was when we put Asian Americans, Japanese Americans who went out there and rescued the Texas Battalion during World War II, during the-
It was a Hawaiian unit, right?
Hawaiian unit. There’re all of these guys from Hawaii now who have permanent Texas citizenship, they call it. They were granted because they rescued the Texas battalion. So, the military has always been on the cutting edge, is what I'm saying, of many of these issues for our society that have seemed very progressive.
But they've been that way, not because of being politically correct or woke or whatever the slogan of the day is. They've been that way because it makes our military stronger and more powerful and more able to kill the bad guys who want to hurt Americans, bottom line.
I love that you bring that badass sensibility to the Senate. Your pinned tweet on your Twitter profile is a picture of you, I think, standing on top of a Huey. I don't know the story of the Huey that you're standing on, but it's, I think, in honor of the 10th anniversary of the combat restriction being lifted. Did you put that tweet up or did your comms team do that?
No, we did. I was in flight school when the combat restriction was lifted. It was 1993. It was when I went, and I actually chose aviation because I was told that it was likely in my lifetime or the most likely branch where women would be able to actually serve in combat.
And it was one of only two combat arms branches open to women: aviation and air defense artillery. And so, I am a proud air assault helicopter pilot. And I'm proud of what America's service men and women have done to protect this country over the 200 years plus years of our nation's history.
Well, the last time we talked, it was before your memoir came out, so I didn't get to ask you about it. And there are a couple of things that jumped out at me. I reread it for this interview.
There’s a lot of profanity.
Say that again?
There's a lot of profanity and army jokes in there.
Well, when I say I appreciate the badass sensibility on the floor of the Senate, it's stories like this that jump out at me.
You talked a lot about trying to change the Senate floor rules and the advocacy of some of your female colleagues in trying to get those rules updated to say the least, maybe brought into the 19th century, if not the 21st century.
And there was this fight over allowing — you were a new mom in this fight over allowing children on the floor of the house. And you made the point that you were going to vote, come hell or high water, and said, if it needed to come to this, it would.
“You might remind them, the Republican leadership, that the entrance to the cloak room (which is where they were going to make you stay as Senate proceedings were going on) is next to the press gallery.”
“I will roll up to the steps outside the cloak room. I will then crawl out of my wheelchair onto the floor, holding my baby and my teeth and pull myself up the steps in order to go vote. Ask them which they'd rather have the press taking pictures of.”
You won that fight.
I did. There's two ways to get to vote in the Senate. One is to actually roll onto the floor itself, and that way is accessible. And I was trying to get permission to carry my baby. And by the way, I voted when she was 10-days-old, so she had to be with me. And we were so closely matched that every vote counts, so I can't afford to miss a vote.
Or the cloak room, which is sort of a room behind the floor where you could sort of stand in the doorway and wave. When senators are coming from the gym and you're all sweating, you don't want to change clothes and put on a suit and tie, you can sort of stand back there and wave and do your thumbs up or thumbs down and the clerk can see you.
They wanted me to vote from there. I said, “But I can't get in there because it's steps. I can't roll my wheelchair up there.” And they're like, “Well, those are the only options.”
I said, “Okay. Do you want to welcome you with open arms onto the floor and be seen as supporting women and working mothers? Or do you want to see me crawl on the floor with my baby and my teeth climbing up the steps? Because I'm going to go vote because the people of Illinois sent me here to represent them, and I'm not going to let them down.”
Can we get personal for a minute? Because there are parts of your book that I'll just confess, I don't think I have ever teared up reading a political memoir before. But your last chapter did that to me and honestly, should be required reading for every parent, especially those who have experienced loss like Anne-Marie and I have.
So, first of all, thank you. There's not a question in that.
But I'm wondering about your decision to write so much about your kids who you adore and who Illinois obviously, adores. And my question isn't about putting them in the spotlight because kids are way tougher than we give them credit for.
It's my self-consciousness about the fact that male senators never get asked about work-life balance. They never have to defend that part of their life. And it's something that you put front and center and it's just a horribly unfair double standard. How do you manage it?
Well, the reason I put it forward is because I don't want to perpetuate the lie that there is a work-life balance, and it's capable, because I bought into that and I just thought I wasn't working hard enough.
And at a certain point, I broke down during the campaign for a Senate and realized that I was doing everything I could, and it still wasn't good enough. And I had to have this moment where I realized, okay, all I can do is the best that I can do.
Male senators when they're running for office and even when they're in office, many of them choose to leave their families back in their home states. So, they're not doing their dad duties when they're here in Washington for the five days a week that they're here. And it's their spouse who is the full-time single parent back at home.
I brought my kids out here so that every morning, I wake them up, I get them dressed, I pack their lunch, I feed them, I drive them, and I drop them off at school, and then I go do my Senate duties because I didn't want to not be doing that with my family every single day. That was a choice that I made.
But that balance is really tough. And the reason I talked a lot about my children in the book is because I never meant to write the book. My daughter, my oldest, she had a field day at school where you have like three-legged races and the family come and you do all the field day stuff.
And I went to it and there's stuff that I can't do. I can't do the three-legged race with her. Well, I mean, I could, we just wouldn't win. Well, maybe I could just take off a leg and just let her run with it and then she could absolutely win the race.
But at that night, she said to me “Mommy, how come you had to lose your legs? Why couldn't someone else's mommy have served? Why did you have to go? Because it really upset me that you couldn't go in the bounce house with me and all of this stuff.”
And I started writing little letters to my girls about why it was important to me to serve because I was hungry as a child and there were food stamps, why was America worth the sacrifices that I chose to make, and why it was an honor and I would do it again.
And all of those little letters that I was writing to my girls to give to them when they were adults got put together and became the book.
You talk about that moment where you confront the myth of the work-life balance at a campaign retreat. Although in your campaign, they're not called retreats because vets don't retreat, they're-
The U.S. military never retreats, we call them IPRs (Intermediate Progress Reviews).
Progress reviews. And that jumped out at me as well because it puts the lie to this notion that perfect balance is possible. It’s not when you care deeply about more than one thing.
And you do the best that you can and it’s what I learned in the military, the 80% solution. If you spent all your time trying to come up with a perfect plan or battle plan to execute a mission, then you're going to use all of the time you have available on planning and no time for rehearsing and no time for execution, and the mission is not going to get accomplished.
So, you have to balance this out. And this is one of the biggest things you learn when you become a staff officer or a staff NCO, is how do you work out that balance to get to the 80% solution, and then you can adjust your plan, your mission as you go along.
You can do FRAGOs as you go along and update your orders as you go along. But at least, start the movement, at least start the mission on its way. Because if you spend all your time planning, you'll never accomplish the mission.
Well, what's the 80% solution for this term of the Senate and the house? What can we expect? Like what is your reach goal? And then I'm going to have to ask you your biggest fears as well. But let's start with the good side of the coin.
Well, I think the 80% solution is just being willing to compromise, being willing to come together and find a way forward. I'll give you an example.
Immigration is a major issue we're dealing with in this country right now, and we need immigration reform. You've got the orthodoxy on the far left that says you have to have a major comprehensive immigration package that does everything and everybody gets a chance, everyone gets to become a citizen and it's kumbaya forward.
That's never going to happen. Let's be realistic. Let’s come up with a plan for immigration reform that's humane, that doesn't separate babies from their moms at the border, but is also one that is fair.
One that says, “Hey, you broke the law to come to this country, you go to the end of the line. You need to learn English, you need to pay fines, fees and penalties. If you want to get on the pathway to citizenship, then you got to right some of the wrongs and when you broke the laws to come here.”
And it's going to be something that's practical. And so, if you do that and you find a partner that you can work with, you can get to a place where maybe you're not doing a whole immigration reform bill, but the 80% solution might be let's do a guest worker program.
And I have a bill that would allow people to get a green card in exchange for military service. So, the deal would be — my bill is called the Enlist Act. You would have to pass the written math and English test, the ASVAB, the test, the entrance exam that's written at the eighth-grade level.
You'd have to pass a background check. You would have to pass the physical. We don't lower the standards. If you meet all of those, then you get to have a provisional green card that can be revoked anytime in your first tour of enlistment if you screw up. If you screw up, we're going to yank it.
But if you don't and you keep your nose clean and you serve an entire tour honorably, that becomes a permanent green card. It's not citizenship, it becomes a permanent green card. And you get to write the wrong of breaking the laws of this country by coming in here illegally. You want to be an American? Prove it. Put on her colors, serve her, protect her, defend her, be willing to die for her.
Then you get a chance at getting to the end of the line and becoming a citizen some, but at least you get a green card and you get to fix your broken document status. Those are the kinds of things you can work on, and compromise and move forward; guest worker program.
There's a lot of people who come here to work in the ag industry, picking crops, working in dairy, working in restaurants — they don't want to become citizens. Give them a guest worker card, where they can come, they can work seasonally, pay taxes, we can finally collect taxes from them, and then they go home at the end of the season.
And those are things that you can compromise on without actually having to have this total immigration reform package. But whatever we do, we got to make sure that we make the border strong again.
I support doubling the number of border control agents. I support more funding. I even would support extending the wall, but let's come to an 80% solution. There's no perfect solution to any one thing.
How about the other side of the coin? What are your biggest concerns looking at a Congress that has an empowered radical element that has not just handicapped, but held hostage its own leadership. How bad could this get?
And are there things that the Senate could do to check it? Are there things that the American people need to be looking out for in particular to to stay vigilant?
The worst-case scenario is 20 members of the Republican Party in the house stop anything from happening for the next two years. That they shut down government, that they break the true faith and credit of the United States by refusing to pay our bills with the debt ceiling.
That they just refuse to let anything happen and government grinds to a halt for two years, and we're not able to serve the American people the way we should. We can pass anything we can out of the Senate, but if it gets stopped in the house because 20 people stop it from happening, that's the worst-case scenario.
Do you worry about a threat to democracy itself? I mean, 2024 is looming, and election denialism, while it was dealt a blow in the last midterm elections, it's still a powerful force within the Republican Party.
It is, it is. And we have to continue to fight it. We have to continue to put the truth out there. And I think that, you said it, the keyword is “vigilance.” We have to be vigilant to make sure that we don't allow those big lies to proliferate.
Well, I want to end with one more paragraph from your book and a follow-up question. This is from an account of the congressional delegation that you accompanied to Iraq. Talk about life coming full circle.
“As we walked to the landing zone, the same LZ where I had taken off and landed hundreds of times during my deployment, I took a deep breath and there it was, a smell so familiar, it felt like a part of me. The hot metal of the aircraft, the powdery dust, the whip of the rotor wash, the hydraulic fluid and the JP-8 fuel.”
“I heard the growl of the engine, saw the whirl of sand rise under the spinning rotor disc. I was back with my crew in ‘0, in the thick of the war with a tigress tour east and the desert stretching out beyond the city. I felt the tears welling up.”
Do you miss flying?
Every single day. What I miss is my crew. I fly civilian now, but what I miss is my crew. I miss the guys I served with.
Yeah, same here. Same here. Well, shout out to all of them and thank you so much, Senator, for joining us. I know you got to get back to it.
Thank you. Take care.
Thanks again to Senator Duckworth for joining me. You can find her on Twitter @TammyDuckworth.
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Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss. I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.