Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin on Holding Trump Accountable
'The mission doesn't change'
Although we’re living through a tumultuous political era with Donald Trump and Republicans totally in charge of Washington and massive protests across the country, Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin said her mission to work on behalf of Wisconsinites isn’t changing. Baldwin, who was elected to the Senate in 2012 after a long career in Congress and the state Legislature, sat down with the Shepherd during the final days of the Obama administration to discuss her plan to represent Wisconsin’s best interests.
Some of that work indeed is holding the new administration accountable. Baldwin has sponsored bills to force presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns, close a loophole that allows Cabinet members to receive tax-free windfalls, and require American-made iron and steel to be used in water infrastructure projects, a provision that House Speaker Paul Ryan reportedly killed off. She’s also been a vocal advocate for saving the Affordable Care Act.
After Baldwin met with the Shepherd last week, she grilled Trump’s Cabinet nominees Tom Price, for Health and Human Services secretary, and school voucher backer Betsy DeVos, for Education secretary. This week, Baldwin announced she’d vote against DeVos’ and Price’s nominations—but also supported Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and his intention to renegotiate NAFTA.
Shepherd: How does this incoming Trump administration and the GOP’s continued control of Congress compare to what you’ve experienced previously?
Baldwin: The mission doesn’t change even if the Congress and the presidents do. In 2012, the people of Wisconsin elected me to stand up to powerful interests and fight for working people in this state. Having the Republican establishment in control in Washington—I mean, they own Washington—will make that work harder. But that work is what I’m going to continue to do. Where there have been promises made that help make our economy fairer for all, not just those at the top, they will have an ally. But they will be held to account for those promises, too.
"Right out of the gate, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which could deny 230,000 Wisconsinites health insurance. Many more would be at jeopardy if things like the mandate to cover people with pre-existing conditions were to disappear, or the guarantee that young people can stay on their parents’ health insurance until they are 26."
Shepherd: What’s your strategy for getting things done in the Trump era? Should Democrats oppose all of the Republicans’ proposals or should they try to find some common ground, even if that does mean giving Republicans a victory?
Baldwin: The incoming president promised to be president for all Americans. Our job is to hold him accountable to that. There are many specifics, too. He promised to buy American. He promised to oppose unfair trade deals. He promised to champion closing the carried interest loophole. Those are all things I’ve championed, too. If he keeps those promises there will be room to work with him. If he doesn’t, our job is to hold him to account.
He has also promised to do some things that I find horrifying on behalf of working Wisconsinites. Right out of the gate, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which could deny 230,000 Wisconsinites health insurance. Many more would be at jeopardy if things like the mandate to cover people with pre-existing conditions were to disappear, or the guarantee that young people can stay on their parents’ health insurance until they are 26. On those issues I will fight tooth and nail because the people of Wisconsin did not send me to Washington, D.C., to take away people’s health care.
Shepherd: Wisconsin voted for Trump after voting Democratic in presidential elections for decades. What did November’s vote tell you about Wisconsin?
Baldwin: I remember most of those presidential races and while Wisconsin had the reputation of being a blue state, Gore’s margin, Kerry’s margin, were both very thin. So despite Wisconsin’s presidential records in recent years, we always knew that this would be close.
I think the results in Wisconsin were much about people alarmed and angry at a system in Washington that had begun to value wealth over work, whether it’s in the tax code or in other policies, and saw the rich and the powerful writing the rules to benefit themselves.
Shepherd: Does being a “red state Democrat” change your position on some policies or which issues you focus on?
"For me as now a 'red state Democrat' I think I redouble my efforts to fight on behalf of working-class people. It’s what I’ve always done."
Baldwin: Wisconsin is at its core all about the dignity of work, the work ethic. I like to remind people that we are called the Badger State not because there is an abundance of little rodents, little badgers running around, but because the miners in the 1800s in southwestern Wisconsin often sheltered in their mines and when they emerged were scoffed at as badgers. And we turned it into a badge of honor that speaks to our work ethic.
For me as now a “red state Democrat” I think I redouble my efforts to fight on behalf of working-class people. It’s what I’ve always done. But wages have been stagnant too long, people have real-life worries about making ends meet and helping their children do better. And we need to continue to fight to make it a fairer economy, a more just economy. I think increasingly we also have to organize locally and make everyone feel part of that effort.
Shepherd: Trump has said the public doesn’t care about what’s in his tax returns and he’s done little to nothing to clear up his conflicts of interest. Is there any way to force Trump to be more transparent?
Baldwin: On the campaign trail he promised to drain the swamp. What Donald Trump’s refusal to share his tax returns says to America is that he thinks it’s OK for him to keep secrets. I think it’s very troubling that we can’t judge for ourselves what sort of conflicts he might have and whether any of his policy proposals would end up feathering his own nest. The chief government ethics officer commented on his “divestment plan”—basically, that it’s wholly inadequate. It’s troubling. He’s placing himself above the law, saying, “I’m the incoming president so I don’t have to do what other presidents have done and what everyone else in public service has to do.”
Shepherd: You’re currently vetting Trump’s appointments. You’ve said you will oppose Jeff Sessions for attorney general but will support Elaine Chao as Transportation secretary. Which other nominees do you have serious questions about?
Baldwin: There are a number of nominees that have raised significant concerns and are significantly controversial. Three will come before one of the committees I sit on, the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, otherwise known as the HELP Committee. Those include Betsy DeVos for Education, Andrew Puzder for Labor and Tom Price for Health and Human Services. Additional highly controversial nominees will come before other committees, some of which I sit on and some I don’t.
On the issue of potential conflicts of interest, that includes several things. One is being in a situation where policies you promote can end up enriching you or a company you used to work for, or lead, in some cases. On that point, the American people need to know that Cabinet secretaries and leaders in government are working for them—this is a government of, by and for the people—and are not looking over their shoulder at their former industry colleagues, not carrying water for their former employer, and not making plans to land somewhere after public service.
First of all, public service is an honor—and hard work—but these nominees need to show America that they are beholden only to the American people. Many of them are a far cry from that. Whether it’s Betsy DeVos and her investments in a higher education financing company, or Rex Tillerson, with a $180 million payout from Exxon that may well go tax-free because of another loophole that I’m trying to close. Or reports that Tom Price has been investing in pharmaceutical companies while making policies that affect the drug manufacturing industry. That’s apparently what Donald Trump calls draining the swamp.
Shepherd: What does the public need to know about Trump’s relationship with Russia and the U.S. intelligence community?
Baldwin: A lot. His campaign rhetoric about Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin and Russia raise significant concerns. They’re very troubling. There are persistent rumors and questions—I can’t rely on rumors. But I do believe that we have more to learn and not just Donald Trump’s direct relation to Russia, to the Kremlin to Vladimir Putin, but campaign insiders and Cabinet nominees like Rex Tillerson. At least with the instance of Rex Tillerson, he has had his hearing and had a very public set of questions, including some very tough questions from one of the Republican members of the committee, about Russia.
Shepherd: You authored the very popular Obamacare provision that allows young adults to stay on their parents’ policy—one of the few provisions that almost everyone seems to agree on. But despite its popularity, Republicans voted to eliminate it as part of their repeal of the ACA.
Baldwin: Except for Susan Collins [senator from Maine]!
Shepherd: What’s it like to see your provision supported and opposed by the same people for purely political reasons?
Baldwin: I don’t understand how anyone can put politics in front of the well-being and health of the people who sent them to Washington. The rigid opposition to the Affordable Care Act has been politically inspired, and despite consensus on a number of its really significant attributes and benefits for the health of the American people, they are still pursuing total repeal. They’ve had six years to craft a replacement and they have nothing to show for it.
Shepherd: You said at the ACA rally in Milwaukee that some Republicans are feeling pressure over repealing and replacing Obamacare. Can public opinion truly affect what happens in Washington?
Baldwin: So long as this is a democracy, yes. Usually in my office I have the famous Margaret Mead quote that says, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” I think we’ve been in a period where the public has not been as vocal as it needs to be. I will tell you that my Republican colleagues, some of them in whispered tones, have begun to concede that they are worried about repealing without a replacement plan.
And they are beginning to understand that there’s a whole other set of voices out there besides the partisan voices that just kept saying, repeal Obamacare. There’s a group of people who have benefitted who have perhaps had health insurance for the first time in their lives, who have not had to stay awake at night worrying about their sick children because they know they can get the care they need. They are out there, too. The fact that they are speaking up is beginning to have an impact. Whether it will be enough, we will see. Progress only occurs when we work together, when we organize. There’s a reason it took 50 years to pass something close to a universal health care measure in America. This is a fight worth taking on, as long as it takes.
Shepherd: Why do you think House Republicans killed your Buy America provision?
Baldwin: The Wall Street Journal reported that lobbyists employed by foreign steel manufacturers urged them to remove it. Whether or not that reporting is the whole story, I don’t know. But after passing the Senate with broad bipartisan support, President-elect Trump went to Cincinnati on his victory tour and said, “I will be guided by two rules with regard to infrastructure, buy American and hire American.” The next day Paul Ryan and the House Republicans took that provision out of their bill and Donald Trump said nothing and tweeted nothing. That’s where it’s going to be so important to hold him accountable to his promises. He got elected on promises, now he’s got to keep them.