Sen. John Thune told Girls State delegates Thursday morning to take advantage of the opportunities that the American Legion Auxiliary program has offered them during the week.
“It’s a time for you to make some friendships, some relationships, and learn a little something along the way,” he said. “I encourage you to look at what you can do to make a difference. I encourage you all to be difference makers. There are so many opportunities and needs across the country and across the world today. We need people in the arena who want to make a difference.
“Whether that involves running for elective office or serving in another way, I just want to encourage you to be people who are serving causes greater than yourselves,” Thune said.
The senator spoke to delegates in Aalfs Auditorium on the University of South Dakota campus in Vermillion. Girls State kicked off Monday evening, May 27 at USD and will wrap up Saturday morning, June 1.
Thursday morning’s session included a question and answer session with Thune fielding inquiries from South Dakota Girls State Governor Calico Ducheneaux.
“How do you feel that your role has changed since you’ve become majority whip in the Senate?” she asked.
The whip position, he said, has the responsibility of moving his or her party’s agenda forward. Thune, a Republican, is a member of the current majority party in the U.S. Senate.
“The job calls for a lot of interacting with individual senators and trying to make sure they have all of the information they need to make good decisions,” Thune said. “In some cases, perhaps, you’re trying to sway them toward a particular point of view, but in the end, most senators are going to vote their conscious. They’re going to vote their constituents. It (the job) is not done in a heavy-handed way but it’s in a way where you’re trying, in the best way that you can, to pull together to try to win the vote.”
Ducheneaux asked Thune to talk about the projects he’s working on during the current session of Congress.
“The Senate, under the Constitution, has the advice and consent role, so we are responsible for moving nominations from the executive branch,” he said. “We spend a lot of time doing that – sometimes it’s described as being in the personnel business. We have to make sure that all of those positions are filled and when the president nominates someone to a position, we have to have a confirmation hearing, do all the due diligence, ultimately, if we decide to move that person and have a vote on the floor.”
A number of important legislative initiatives are coming up, Thune added.
“We have a major trade bill – the USMCA – which is the United States, Mexico, Canada free trade agreement, which will be really good for South Dakota agriculture,” he said. “We’re hoping to get that on the floor of the Senate later this summer.”
The Senate recently passed a bill introduced by Thune dealing with robocalls.
“All of you get those pesky robocalls on your cell phones,” he said. “They’re kind of a nuisance and they’re annoying to a lot of people, but more importantly than that, there are scam artists out there who prey on vulnerable populations, particularly, elderly people and try and rip them off.”
The legislation, he said, puts some remedies in place that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) can use to penalize scam artists and put in place a credible threat of criminal prosecution.
“It’s a bipartisan bill; we passed it out of the Senate last week with only one dissenting vote,” Thune said. “It moves to the House of Representatives where I hope they pick it up, pass it and put it on the president’s desk.”
The Senate is also working on bipartisan legislation to help reduce student loan debt, he said.
“You all are probably heading down that track before too long, where you’re looking at college and looking at the tuition costs and obviously, that’s a big, important decision that you’re going to have to make,” Thune said. “If you come out with debt, we want to make it easier for employers to offer a tax-free benefit to employees to help pay down some of those student loans.
“If you’re an employee today, you get a tax benefit for helping an employee go back to school and pay tuition to finance their education,” he added. “But if you’ve already got your education and you’re in the workplace and you’ve got student debt, we think there ought to be similar treatment for that.”
Immigration remains a major issue to address, Thune said.
“So far, we haven’t come up with a real clear-cut answer on how to deal with all of the different elements of that issue,” he said. “That’s something that’s always in front of us, too.
“We’ve got economic issues and we’re always looking at ways to get the economy growing faster, create better-paying jobs and higher wages and increase the standard of living for people in this country,” the senator said.
Ducheneaux asked Thune to share advice on compromise and working with people from other parties. Girls State delegates, as members of two distinct political parties, will soon be thrust in roles this week where bipartisanship will be important.
Thune noted that the Republican Party currently holds 53 of the 100 seats in the U.S. Senate, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the GOP is in complete control.
“The Senate was designed with its rules and procedures to protect minority rights, so in the Senate, it takes, to do anything consequential, 60 votes,” he said. “There’s a 60 vote threshold to move any sort of major legislation through the Senate, which means that, with 53 Republicans, we need at least seven Democrats, maybe more, to get anything major done.
“You have to figure out how to work across the aisle,” Thune said. “As you guys have your elections, and you run under a party obviously that you subscribe to and I do subscribe to my party’s basic core values and principles, and the other party has their principles and subscribes to theirs, but to accomplish major legislative initiatives in the United States Senate, you have to find consensus. I think that’s the challenge that we face in the country today, because the country is very polarized.”
He advised delegates to be willing to hear other party member’s perspectives as they look at various political issues.
“You can have differences of opinion and still be respectful,” Thune said, “and still have a dialogue that is respectful of other points of view. Too often today, the harshness, the coarseness, the attacks that can sometimes become very personal in our politics really doesn’t help anybody in the long run.”
He urged delegates to work at finding areas of agreement while realizing they aren’t going to be able to agree on everything.
“Try to find that common ground. For a democratic function to work effectively, you’ve got to have some level of consensus. Hold firm to your positions, but when comes to trying to find your legislative body, trying to find that consensus, be willing to listen to the other person’s point of view in a respectful way,” Thune said.