IBJ: You’ve been at this for almost a year since the election — a year that has been historic in so many ways. What kind of grade would you give yourself during this first year?
Duckworth: Well, I think I would have to say an incomplete. I have not been able to get everything I’ve wanted to get done. I really was hoping we could get a transportation/infrastructure bill through, but we’re still waiting for that to come out of the White House. My big thing on the campaign trail was getting this infrastructure bill passed so we could get jobs into the local economies up and down the state — and also to just fix the D-minus grade infrastructure we have across the country.
I personally was able to get legislation passed in May to help alleviate misuse with infrastructure. (The new law rolls back a federal rule that allowed governors of neighboring states to delay or block infrastructure improvements in Illinois.) I joined with Todd Young of Indiana to do that. I’m very proud of that. That was the fastest any freshman senator has passed legislation since the 1970s.
IBJ: A lot of the general perception of the Senate is that not much gets done. Is that fair or accurate in your mind?
Duckworth: Well, not much is getting done in the Senate or House as it stands because it’s so partisan. I had moved from the House to the Senate and I had hoped the Senate would be more bipartisan, and unfortunately, I found myself shut out — like other Democrats — of the issues. Whether it’s health care, whether it’s infrastructure or whether it’s tax reform. I fully support comprehensive tax reform but Democrats haven’t even been allowed in the room to work on the potential bill. It’s frustrating. I agree with the voters across Illinois. They don’t care how we do it; they just want us to work together to get it done.
IBJ: You mentioned your time in the House. At the time (2013-17) a different party was in power. Did you get more done then?
Duckworth: We just passed a defense budget (in the Senate). I was able to pass, like I did in the House, a lot of amendments to the defense budget, and I’m very proud of that. A lot of it will help businesses in and around Illinois. Republican (Defense Committee) Chairman John McCain was very generous in allowing me — even though I’m not on the committee — to attach quite a large number of amendments that will help small businesses compete for government contracts and bring manufacturing for defense needs back into the U.S. That will help Rock Island. We did pass that. That was bipartisan.
IBJ: What do you think the eventual effect of (pending) tax reform is going to be on your constituents?
Duckworth: It’s going to be devastating in Illinois. We are a high tax state. We’re a net-donor state. For every dollar Illinois residents pay in federal income tax, we get back less than a dollar in services because we’re basically subsidizing other states — right to work and other states. The Senate plan gets rid of the state and local property
tax deduction, and that’s really going to hurt badly. (That plan was actually amended in the Senate after this interview, calling for taxpayers to be able to deduct up to $10,000 for state and local property taxes. The final votes, though, were still pending.)
It’s going to be really hard for Illinois businesses as well. We’re a state where 95 percent of our employers are small and medium businesses. They don’t get the benefits in the tax plan that large, multinational corporations get. If you’re Boeing or some large multinational corporation you’re going to do fairly well. But if you’re a 50-employee-or-less business, you’re not going to do all that great.
IBJ: One of the reform goals is to get many companies to bring their headquarters back into the United States, which makes sense. Is there a way to do it short of offering them a golden parachute to do it?
Duckworth: I don’t have a problem with lowering the corporate tax rate to get companies to repatriate those dollars and bring their headquarters back into the U.S. and start paying more taxes here. The House and Senate (plans) would drop the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 20 percent. I would be willing to drop it to 15. With those repatriated dollars we stand to gain something like a trillion dollars in revenues. I’ll vote for the 15 percent on the condition that the trillion dollars goes into infrastructure.
IBJ: So, you’re OK with getting the tax money as long as it’s applied to the right need?
Duckworth: Exactly. I don’t want it to go to corporate shareholders. Right now, the infrastructure in this country is rated as a D-minus by the American Society of Civil Engineers. They’ve estimated it would take a trillion dollars to bring it up to a passing grade. So, I can see doing more than where the Republicans are right now if we can make a deal that that trillion dollars goes into infrastructure.
IBJ: There’s also been a lot of worry lately about the future of the Consumer Protection Financial Bureau and some of the banking regulation laws passed under Dodd-Frank. What direction do you see all of this going?
Duckworth: Well, if you look at who Trump has placed into office, it’s all Wall Street. They want to get back to the bad old days where they made a heck of a lot of money. He’s got more billionaires in his cabinet than any other president in our nation’s history. These are people who did very well in the recession. I think they are on the side of Wall Street, not on the side of everyday, hard-working Americans who saw the value of their homes wiped out, who were victims to predatory lenders. A lot of Dodd-Frank provisions were put in to place to address those issues. Republicans just passed, on a very partisan note, a repeal of the rules against forced arbitration. If you are unjustly treated by Wells Fargo like they did when they opened all those (unauthorized) accounts in people’s names, you no longer have the ability to sue them. You are forced to go into forced arbitration. And by the way, the large corporations win those cases 95 percent of the time.
IBJ: Let’s shift gears just a second. You recently authored a bill that would close a loophole that allows gun sales to go forward if a background check is not complete. Where does that stand and what is your feeling about that particular issue?
Duckworth: I think where I am on firearms control is where most Americans are. Over 90 percent support universal background checks. The bill that I am cosponsoring would close the loopholes on gun shows. Right now, if you are a gun shop owner and you decide to go out of business, you are allowed to convert the entire inventory of your store to personal use and once it’s a personal use item, you can sell it without background checks. Most Americans when I talk about this are astounded you can do that. The bill would have exceptions, like transfers between family members. It’s not going to affect hunters who are borrowing a weapon from a friend.
I shoot, I like to target practice; I’m not so much a hunter as a marksman, because that’s how I grew up. So, I get it. But I think not having universal background checks is dangerous.
IBJ: Many people have wondered about the many executive orders the president has signed, circumventing congressional action. Do you think that should be put in check?
Duckworth: Well, it’s a symptom of the divisiveness and partisanship that’s happening in Washington. President Obama had to use those executive orders as well. And President Bush before him. By no means is President Trump the first president to do this. If we become more bipartisan, I think you’ll see less use of that.