I last interviewed Democrat Tammy Duckworth in May 2012 when she was campaigning for the 8th District congressional seat, centered in the northwest suburbs, against tea party favorite, Rep. Joe Walsh. (In her first run for Congress, in 2006, she lost to Republican Peter Roskam.)
I thought it would be interesting to ask the rookie congresswoman, an Iraq war veteran, former director of the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and an assistant secretary in the US Department of Veterans Affairs, how the shutdown has impacted her and her district.
So many of the most emotional issues emanating from the shuttering of the government involve soldiers and veterans—everything from the threat of a cutoff of “death gratuities” given the families of soldiers killed to the plight of World War II veterans blocked from visiting their monument in DC. Duckworth lost both legs and partial use of her right arm when the Blackhawk helicopter she was copiloting was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. The Purple Heart recipient, who wears two titanium legs, has had to depend, more than most, on the efficient operation of the federal government.
Below is an edited and condensed version of our email conversation:
CF: Describe what you’ve been doing with your days in DC since the shutdown started.
TD: I’ve spent most of my time in DC, although I … travel[ed] back to the District last weekend. My days in DC are busy, keeping up-to-date with legislation and other duties. It is important to me that while I’m in DC, I am still regularly able to talk with my neighbors [back home]. To that end, I’ve held a telephone town hall and answered constituent calls on the phone.
CF: In the absence of committee meetings, how do you fill those open hours?
TD: Committee hearings still take place during the shutdown, so I have been and will continue to attend hearings.
CF: Does the shutdown make your days busier or more unpredictable?
TD: The shutdown makes my days fairly unpredictable as we wait for the majority in the House to bring forward a serious proposal to reopen the government. I am working hard and doing my part to end this shutdown as soon as possible, while routinely informing and updating my constituents on what is happening in Washington.
CF: If you could have a private meeting with Speaker Boehner what suggestions would you make to get the government back up, open, and running?
TD: We’ve now entered our second week of this senseless shutdown. Our government needs to be reopened immediately so Americans can receive the services they depend on and thousands of hard-working federal employees can get back to work. House leadership can end the shutdown today by bringing the Senate-passed Continuing Resolution to the floor for a vote.
CF: What impact does this shut down have on your district specifically?
TD: I’m very worried about small businesses during the shutdown. Last year my district received $391,000 a day from SBA loans. That means with the application delay we are experiencing now, almost $3 million dollars could be on hold or lost because of the shutdown during the last ten days. My district receives the most SBA loans within the entire Illinois delegation—and the shutdown is affecting all of our businesses.
CF: What impact has the shutdown had on your offices in DC and Schaumburg offices?
TD: My offices in DC and Schaumburg remain open. My Schaumburg office has received a lot of calls and questions regarding the shutdown. Many of my constituents are really concerned about what is happening and how their lives and benefits will be affected.
CF: What has the impact been on constituent services?
TD: My District staff is hard at work not only answering questions about the shutdown, but also helping constituents deal with complex issues due to federal department closures. Many federal agencies have furloughed the people that help my caseworkers advocate on behalf of my neighbors, which will, unfortunately, delay any action on these cases. For example, the Department of Defense and all service branches have furloughed their Congressional liaison staff and their offices will be staffed by military personnel. Civilian caseworkers are furloughed, so new inquiries will be delayed. At [the] VA, the Congressional liaison will be available on a limited basis. At the Office of Personnel Management, Department of Labor, and the Internal Revenue Service, all advocates and liaisons are furloughed.
CF: Have you any idea how many of your constituents have been furloughed because of the shut down?
TD: There is the possibility that up to 52,000 federal employees in Illinois could be furloughed due to the shutdown. All of these employees have jobs that are not only crucial to the state of Illinois, but also to our federal government.
CF: Comment on the Defense Department’s discontinuation of the “death gratuities” for soldiers killed (21 so far) since the beginning of the shutdown.
TD: It is appalling that these families had to worry for even one second about the benefits they deserve in such a difficult time. [A private charity, The Fisher House Foundation, has agreed to cover the $100,000 death gratuity along with related expenses, such as travel and funeral, to be reimbursed to Fisher once the government reopens.] This is a consequence of the government shutdown and the piecemeal process that has been used by the [House] majority. A piecemeal approach will pay troops’ salaries and survivor benefits, but it fails to fund these same families’ Tricare prescription medications. It fails to allow these families to bury their loved ones in a national cemetery on a timely basis. We need to pass a clean Continuing Resolution now so that our troops and their families, veterans and all Americans, can receive the services they deserve.
CF: Do you sense the momentum is moving in the Democrats’ direction, more Republican congress people willing to consider voting, along with the 195 voting Democrats, for the clean CR?
TD: House leadership has dragged out this unnecessary government closure by voting on incomplete piecemeal legislation that would cut $6 billion from the Department of Veterans Affairs and many other crucial programs and departments. We could end this shutdown today if leadership brought the Senate-passed Continuing Resolution to the floor of the House for a vote. There are enough votes, from both Democrats and Republicans, for the bill to pass. We should embrace this bipartisan effort to reopen our government.
CF: Will immigration reform come to a vote in the House this year?
TD: I hope so. Immigration reform done right will make our communities stronger by providing opportunities for our businesses, securing our borders, and helping us balance our budget. The Senate has passed bipartisan immigration reform and the House should do the same. We can’t allow partisanship and extremism to stop us from making common sense reforms that are vital to the future of this great nation.