Duckworth in First Speech on Senate Floor: America’s Prosperity & Strength Depend On Our Values
[WASHINGTON, DC] - U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) delivered her maiden speech on the Senate floor today, calling for a return to the shared values of equality, opportunity and inclusiveness that made Illinois and America the envy of the world while rebuking the voices in Washington suggesting a darker path forward for our country. Duckworth highlighted how these values led to signature American economic and military achievements and expressed the need to continue to lead with our values by investing in infrastructure, manufacturing and education and advancing the cause of civil rights. Video of Duckworth's remarks can be found here on the Senator's Facebook page.
The maiden speech is a longstanding tradition in the United States Senate, marking the moment a member makes his or her first full address on the Senate floor.
A full transcript of Duckworth's remarks are available below:
Thank you, Mr. President. And thank you to my friend and mentor-and a great Illinoisan-Senator Durbin, for being here today. I wouldn't be here without your guidance and friendship.
It is truly an honor to stand at this desk, which was once held by another great Illinoisan by the name of Barack Obama, delivering my maiden speech from the floor of the United States Senate to the people of Illinois, the same state that's been represented in Washington by other impressive leaders like Paul Simon and Abraham Lincoln.
And it is an honor to address the people of the United States of America; the greatest nation in the world. Though we have occasionally made choices as a society that do not reflect our best selves, we are today the greatest nation in the world because of the founding ideals that have anchored our nation and because of the shared values that have guided the development and strength of our economy and people. Values like treating each other equally, showing strength and resilience in the face of hardship, and embracing the diversity that makes us who we are.
They are shared values that have helped us to strive toward that more perfect union the Constitution's framers envisioned. A more perfect union that offers everyone a chance to reach his or her potential, a more perfect union that won't give up on its people, and a more perfect union whose people don't give up on themselves.
We face a great deal of challenges and threats-threats I know well-but we cannot allow today's hardships to change who we are as a people, to tear down the pillars that make our nation great. Falling victim to fear and demagoguery will only ensure a weaker America for our children, and that's not a future that I want for my two-year-old daughter Abigail. When we as a society think about the future we want for all our children, it's important to remember how we got here.
Our nation wasn't founded as the dominant global economic and military force it is today. We weren't founded as the leader of the free world. Our people built that. Americans understood that when we invest in ourselves, the fabric that holds our country together only grows stronger.
A scrappy gang of patriots in the American Revolution-my own family included-won us our liberty, which we used to push for greater civil and human rights and to make investments in agricultural and educational systems that sparked our economy allowing us to strengthen our military into the greatest fighting force the world has ever seen.
Success was never easy or guaranteed. From our founding, the United States of America was forged through fierce debates and stark divisions. Slavery led to bloodshed across the country-including in the Senate chamber-and culminated in brothers killing brothers during our civil war. Yet our union made it through our greatest challenges and emerged stronger. We emerged a more perfect union.
Our strength has been on display outside of our military as well when heroes like Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman risked everything to help bring an end to slavery. When Martin Luther King, Jr., had a dream and when the children of the Little Rock Nine braved harassment and abuse to bring an end to segregated schools and ensure educational opportunity for all. And when the backbreaking work of Asian and American laborers united our nation from sea to shining sea with the completion of the transcontinental railroad.
America catalyzed the industrial revolution, helped rescue the global community from fascism during World War II, promoted civil and human rights around the globe, explored space, launched the internet revolution, helped feed the world, built a world-class infrastructure network, developed a gold standard education system, and grew the strongest economy ever seen. We were able to win World War II not only because of the brave troops in our Armed Forces, but also because our nation's manufacturers and steel mills were able to produce the tanks, planes, firearms and other tools we needed to defeat the Nazis.
We were only able to build those weapons, launch the internet revolution and send a man to the moon because we had a well-educated workforce made of people from around the globe who all had an opportunity to attend the world-class colleges and universities we'd spent generations strengthening.
Our economy was able to grow to its current strength not only because of our well-educated workforce and those who came from distant lands and stayed to contribute to our society, but also because we'd invested heavily in infrastructure and built an interstate system and air and rail networks that enabled our farmers, ranchers and other producers to get their goods to market inside and outside of this country's borders.
We were able to feed the world not only because of our strong agricultural sector and infrastructure, but also because of the scientific advances, supported by our educational institutions, that helped increase farm production and yields.
Throughout our history, we pushed to expand human and civil rights, from the abolitionists to the suffragettes, learning from people like the Tuskegee Airmen, the Selma marchers and the LGBTQ leaders today that being inclusive and enabling people to reach their full potential only strengthens the American core.
We did all of these things as a result of our shared values, and we have reaped their rewards for generations. We've seen our nation's strength in our prouder moments like when America chose to go to the moon - not because it was easy but, as President Kennedy said, because it was hard. And we've seen our strength in tragedy, reuniting under a common purpose in the rubble of the Pentagon and Ground Zero on 9/11.
We might get knocked down, but the America that I know-that I fought for and love-does not give up. That's not a democratic principle or a republican principle, it's the American way. America's greatness has never depended on the strength of any individual person, but on all of us, working together towards a common goal.
But when we've failed to stay true to our core values - when we deny another person our nation's promise of opportunity - our national strength suffers. When a child can't access the tools to succeed in school, when a woman can't afford basic health care, when refugees fleeing terror see the door slammed in their face, when we deny civil rights on the basis of skin color or sexual orientation or religion, and when a working family can't put food on the table, our whole nation suffers.
At the end of the day, America's greatness depends on each of us remaining true to the common values of our nation.
But we've lost sight of those values. The nation that built an interstate highway system, that was a refuge for immigrants who became the foundation of our economy, that pushed humanity to new heights, first with planes and helicopters and then into space.
That same nation seems to have forgotten how to invest in itself. Our country that ushered in the era of aviation is now home to aging airports that struggle to compete with their global competitors.
Our country, which took on the herculean task of reversing the flow of the Chicago River to protect the city's drinking water, can no longer muster the resources to modernize public water systems to prevent our children from being poisoned by lead.
And our country that built the greatest military the world has ever seen-sending a signal that we will not cower to anyone-now finds itself with leaders who believe in the misguided notion that it is better for us to hide behind walls than to help lead with strength. Make no mistake, America has not lost her greatness-our nation remains the dominant force on the global stage-but if we don't act, our adversaries are positioned to overtake us.
Though some may try to convince us the path forward is less engagement with the world, less acceptance of others and less investment in ourselves. I know that the path forward for our country cannot include-does not include-turning our backs on the shared values that built our nation.
Perhaps more than any other state, Illinois knows this. We represent all the strengths of our nation, from our dynamic cities to our strong rural and industrial communities and everything in between. We are the realization of the values that have created a robust American economy, bolstered by a strong agricultural community and manufacturing sector, both of which innovate and strengthen our nation with the help of wise public policy and investments.
Those investments enabled Illinois steelworkers to help us develop our farm land, build our cities and secure our military strength. American manufacturing literally built this nation.
But too many of the steel mills we relied on to win World War II have been idled or shuttered completely. After years of illegal trade practices like dumping of cheap foreign products and currency manipulation by our competitors, our manufacturing base has been weakened.
That hurts not only American jobs, but also our nation's military strength as well the resilience of our entire economy. We need to do a better job of keeping manufacturing jobs within our borders and we need to make the investments necessary to ensure we have a workforce trained for our 21st Century jobs.
We can do better by Illinois's tens of thousands of farmers, ranchers and agricultural workers as well. They all wake up with a purpose, each farm feeding nearly 170 people every year while supporting an industry that is developing cutting-edge biofuels and other technologies.
I've seen firsthand the painful price our nation pays because of our over-reliance on oil imported from our competitors and the simple fact is that American farmers are helping us improve our national security, helping strengthen our Armed Forces and our entire country every day.
Our farmers are already helping produce billions of gallons of clean fuel for our cars, our factories and our military - and every single one of them helps bring us closer to energy independence.
We cannot afford to leave them behind. We should be working to preserve policies like the Renewable Fuel Standard that support agriculture jobs and to open new markets, like Cuba, for their goods.
For generations, our manufacturers and agricultural sector have relied on a strong infrastructure network-including roads, bridges, waterways, railways and air transportation-to get their goods to market, both domestically and internationally.
Illinois has often led the way, having built the nation's first elevated electric rail line in the 1800s. But today, far too much of that infrastructure is crumbling-in dire need of the investments our society once understood the need for.
The down-payments previous generations made pay dividends to us all in the form of increased tourism revenue, lower-cost and more efficient shipments, easier travel and many other benefits.
If we fail to continue the investments past generations have made, we risk falling behind our global competitors, hurting not only our tourism industry, but also our manufacturers and our hardworking ranchers, farmers, and producers who will find it harder and more expensive to move their goods to market.
If we choose to disregard our infrastructure much longer, we simply won't be able to compete in the 21st century global economy. Improving our infrastructure isn't a partisan issue; it's common sense. It's an economic priority, a defense priority and a national security imperative.
This is something we can all work on together, and I'm proud to say that the first bill I proposed after arriving in the Senate passed unanimously-with bipartisan support-and it will cut red tape and help streamline efforts to modernize our infrastructure while helping create jobs in Illinois and around the country.
Modernizing our nation's infrastructure will allow our economy to continue growing for generations to come.
That's also true of supporting our schools, colleges and universities. We've developed a global gold standard of education that enabled our manufacturers, agricultural workers, engineers and brilliant Americans across all sectors to push our economy even further.
There's a reason that wealthy elites across the globe, including world leaders, still send their children to our shores to be educated at world class institutions like the University of Illinois and University of Chicago. Our education system is widely recognized as the best in the world.
Our teachers and institutions continue to produce some of the best trained and most skilled professionals in every field imaginable, both American and international students. That's a good thing.
But more and more Americans are no longer able to access those same educational opportunities. We've priced too many of our own children out of the market for the colleges and universities that we've developed to ensure our nation's workforce remains more skilled than our competitors. Or saddled them with crippling debt.
And we're failing to make the necessary investments in K-12 public institutions that - regardless of zip code - should be preparing every single one of our children to lead our country into the future.
Quality primary education should not be a privilege only for the wealthy, and it should not depend on rolling the dice on receiving a voucher. In the greatest and wealthiest nation in the world, a quality education should be a right for every single American child.
Our nation's promise of opportunity should be a reality for every child in America, not just for those whose parents can afford it. We already have some of the world's greatest teachers, brightest students and best facilities within our own borders. All we need to do is ensure they have the resources they need to succeed.
That means our kids shouldn't have to worry about going to school hungry. Or getting the help they need after school. Or about being able to pay for college when they graduate high school.
That's why I've focused on common-sense solutions to help increase access to educational opportunity, whether by helping lead the charge to make college more affordable or doing more to ensure the education we're providing people actually helps them find good-paying jobs when they graduate.
In that vein, I am also disheartened by the recent erosion of civil rights protections in our nation. The calls for bigger walls and closed doors are not only bad, costly policies, they run counter to our society's shared value for inclusion over exclusion.
Too many of us seem to forget the immigrant roots within our own families. If we lose sight of our nation's founding principles, as some in Washington would like us to do, we will lose out on the innovations we've seen from immigrants and immigrant families.
If we had rejected immigrants years ago, Apple might never have been founded by the son of a Syrian man. I worry that, at a time when we still have so much work to do to make our union more perfect and to provide truly equal rights for all, under the current Administration we are at risk of backtracking on hard-fought progress made by civil rights leaders who bled - and even died - for the right of all Americans, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, income, or zip code to have the right to vote, to have equal protection under the law, to have basic worker protections and for the everyday rights and privileges so many of us take for granted.
We still have so much progress left to make if we want the American Dream to be accessible to all Americans; equal pay for equal work, a criminal justice system that truly provides justice for all, nation-wide leave policies that enable everyone to take time to care for a sick family member or start a family, a society that is accessible for disabled Americans and truly equal for LGBTQ Americans.
I worry that we are at risk of going backward rather than forward. Failing to continue our nation's inclusive nature weakens our global standing as well, as the rest of the world begin to look elsewhere for moral leadership. That would be a failure for America, and a weakening of our nation that I will fight to prevent.
And, of course, I also know how much our military has contributed to our nation's greatness throughout our history. We must do a better job of recognizing those contributions. Not just by purchasing equipment and technology, though what our skilled workforce has developed for them is the envy of the world, but also by ensuring that we recognize and respect the sacrifices made by our troops, our military families and our Veterans.
Servicemembers embody our values of shared sacrifice and perseverance, of loyalty and selfless service-and they each make great sacrifices to protect us. They deserve from their leaders in Washington a clear sense of mission and strategy and they deserve to know we fully support them.
So, when the drums of war are beating in the White House or in Congress, you can bet that I'm going to be right here on the floor of the Senate asking the tough questions and making sure our leaders in Washington, especially those who have never served in uniform, fully consider the true costs of war-not just in dollars and cents but in human lives.
I'll also be there to remind my colleagues that we are all dishonored when any Veteran is forced lay their head down to sleep on the same streets they defended. And when our troops come home, I'll be working to ensure that our Veterans receive the care and support they've earned from the sacrifices they've made.
Each of these components of our society contribute to what has made this country great: our military, our values, our infrastructure, our agriculture, our manufacturers, and our world-class educational system.
If we fall prey to our fears, to our worst demons, and allow any of these pillars to fall, we will lose our opportunity to remain the envy of the world.
We can rebuild the foundation of our nation's strength and revamp it for the 21st century. But we can't simply rest on our past successes and act like our greatness is guaranteed forever. It isn't.
This is deeply personal for me-I wouldn't be here today without the education that enabled me to serve in our military for more than two decades and give back to my country, both in and out of uniform. And our nation wouldn't be as strong as it is today without the millions of individuals who sacrificed to build it.
Our nation's strength-what makes American great-is rooted firmly in our shared sense of sacrifice. It comes from our single parents, working multiple jobs just to make sure their kids don't go to school hungry. It comes from the farmer in Illinois, waking long before dawn and working long after dusk to help power and feed our nation. It comes from the immigrant family, willing to put everything on the line to give their kids a chance at a better life than their own. It comes from the hard work, the compassion, the sacrifice that Americans serving their country in and out of the military demonstrate every single day.
We can all do a better job of remembering the shared values that have helped build this nation, but I want to be clear about one thing: America is already great. We shouldn't let anyone tell us otherwise.
We know we still have a lot work to do as a country, but let us not lose sight of the core values that make our improbable union possible. We are still the greatest nation on the face of the earth, and if anyone has the capacity to overcome the challenges of today, it's the American people.
Thank you, Mr. President.
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