Heidi Heitkamp

Final Senate Floor Speech – Dec. 11, 2018

Heidi Heitkamp
December 11, 2018— Washington, D.C.
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In 2000, I was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer.

And after I got done with treatment, my oncologist told me I had a 28-percent chance of living more than 10 years. Think about that.

I knew right away that I had a chance to use what time God gave me for good and noble purposes—to try and do the things I have always thought needed to be done in this country.

It is an important lesson for all of you. The greatest gift you have is not your bank account. The greatest gift you have is the amount of time you have left on this Earth and what you do with that time. I chose, for good or bad, to come to the United State Senate.

I think when we have a world of options and we make this choice, it is so important that we come here with purpose—not just to be named a senator, not just for the trappings of office, but with purpose.

The truth is, I am not supposed to be here. I am from Mantador, North Dakota. It is a town of 90 people. When I was growing up, my family was one-tenth of the population. I just have to say.

My dad was a World War II veteran who loved education. He read the paper every day. He believed in this country. But he was never given a chance to go to high school. My family struggled to get by, and when you look at it, you think about this; you think about a country where somebody from my background could actually become a United States senator.

I am a Democrat from a very conservative state, but against all odds—in fact, the prediction was it was only 8 percent—I got elected to the Senate. The fact that I got to serve in the Senate for 6 years is an incredible American story. People always ask me: At what point did you think, wow, you came to the Senate?

I have said that I was so busy after I got elected because no one thought I would ever get elected, so people who never wanted to see me during my campaign wanted to see me. I was busy taking meetings and busy putting together the office.

I remember the day I came to that chair and the pastor came and he gaveled in, and then I turned around to say the Pledge of Allegiance. I thought: Here I am from Mantador, North Dakota, a girl, middle-aged, a pudgy Democrat from North Dakota, and I am standing in the well of the Senate where not even 2,000 people have come before.

This is a great and good and noble country with great purpose, with great opportunity. I want every child out there to understand it doesn’t matter. We represent a cross section of this great country, but we also aren’t that special. We are not.

Sometimes I think the American public thinks if you took 100 random people and put them in the chairs, they could do better than we could do. But the truth is, you all came here with that same noble purpose. You all came here to change America, to do the right thing. I don’t care if you sit across there; I don’t care if you sit here. You all came here for the right purpose.

The fact that I got to serve in the Senate is part of a great American story, and that story happens only in this country. Don’t ever forget that. If we lose that opportunity, we will become diminished in who we are.

Today, I want to offer a few comments. I hope they are not too preachy, but I want everyone to understand, especially my colleagues, that this has been the opportunity of a lifetime. Think about what we did to get here. This process we go through is brutal and, quite honestly, obscene. It is obscene what we do to get here.

Having done all of that work, having taken those steps and walked that gauntlet of a campaign, we have an opportunity not just to achieve the title but to do great and good things for this country. My job here—the work I have done—has always been to remember who we are standing in this well for.

Throughout the past six years, I have stood here for North Dakota, for the incredible people I serve. I have stood here for the families of disabled children who were terrified they would lose their healthcare. When I took that vote on the Affordable Care Act, in that vote, I remembered their faces; I remembered their tears. I have stood here for the men and women of our Armed Forces and our veterans in North Dakota, who believe they did a great thing and deserve to be treated respectfully, honorably, and, yes, get the benefits they have earned.

Too often they are denied. Veterans should not have to come to a congressional office to get the benefits they have earned, yet too many have to.

I have stood here for retirees whose pensions were threatened. I have asked a simple question: If we can spend billions bailing out the failed Wall Street bankers, can’t we pay attention to the working men and women who are struggling, who are in crisis? Literally, the heartbreak of their stories, if heard across this chamber—the reaction would be overwhelming. Many of them are veterans. Many of them worked hard and now are broken in the work they have done.

I have stood here for farmers in rural communities, and I have stood here for Native people. Many times, as you know, I have tried to do my best to educate all of you on the challenges of our first Americans, our Native Americans.

Mostly, I hope I have stood here for the children of America because, in spite of how we behave, they truly are our future. They are the people who make a difference for our future, and if we do not start respecting the challenge that we have to create a better world—a better world with more opportunity—we will not fix the problems of America long term.

These are the people who drive me every day. They are whom we serve—not a party, not an ideology. We serve Americans. I have spent my time standing and fighting for them, and, for me, that work will never, never stop.

With all of that said, I stand here proud of what we have accomplished.

When you look at the time and the opportunity to rise above partisanship and rancor, I have found so much common ground with so many members of this body. I am incredibly proud of what we have been able to accomplish.

I have advocated for Native American communities, and my bill to stand up for Native American children, which I did with Lisa, from the very beginning, with Senator Murkowski, was the first bill I introduced. It was symbolic for me because we have to do better. I found great partnerships with Lisa, not just on this but on other issues. I know her heart, and I know that she cares. When you find people who care the way you care, you can do amazing things.

My legislation to create an Amber Alert with our colleague John McCain in Indian Country became law.

We are on our way to passing Savanna’s Act, which is going to recognize for the first time the challenge and the tragedy of missing and murdered indigenous women. All of this so important.

Bipartisan legislation to help crack down on human trafficking online. We shut down Backpage. We shut down people who were, in fact, selling children for sex. Think about that. That is a noble act that we took.

The challenge continues. Congress passed my bill to give first responders more training and resources to keep our communities strong and safe.

I led a successful effort, again, with my colleague from Alaska, Lisa Murkowski, to lift the age-old ban on exporting oil and pair it with renewables, t we did with my other colleagues on this side of the aisle when we looked at enhancing renewable energy. A flaming success on both sides. We are exporting, literally, millions of barrels of oil, resulting in energy independence and helping our allies, but we also are growing our renewable energy industry because of that effort. It didn’t happen without colleagues working together.

I secured a vet center in Grand Forks and a CBOC in Devils Lake. It might be small to this body, but it is huge to the veterans it serves.

I got needed funds for flood protection across North Dakota—projects we need—by working with Senator Hoeven.

I passed my bill to secure the northern border working with Kelly Ayotte, who is no longer here but a great friend.

Legislation I helped write to provide relief to community banks with Senator Crapo, Senator Donnelly, Senator Tester, Senator Warner, recognizing the challenges of small lenders and how we needed to address those challenges. No one thought we could get that done, but we did because we believed we could. Think about that.

I worked with Republicans and Democrats—probably the crowning achievement together in terms of bipartisanship—to deal with carbon capture. The first major piece of carbon legislation that has been passed since I have been here.

I can’t speak to other pieces, but how did that happen? It happened when Senator Barrasso, Senator Capito, and I, and by the way, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse collaborated. We said: We can’t agree on climate, but we will agree on development of technology that will change outcomes. This technology is absolutely essential to tackling the problems of carbon emissions in this country.

Don’t say it can’t be done. If you can get Sheldon Whitehouse and Mitch McConnell on a bill that involves carbon and the coal industry, that is a good day here. That is a really good day here.

I worked to help address the detrimental impact exposure to trauma. This is an issue I hope you all will become better educated on—childhood trauma and the effect that it has on so many of our children. I worked with great colleagues. Dick Durbin, who actually let me take the ball and run with it, for which I will always be grateful.

I worked with Cory Booker from New Jersey doing incredible things for children.

It is pivotal, if we are going to change outcomes for American families, that we begin to address why it is that we do everything we have always done and we expect a different result. We have to think differently about these issues.

I helped write and negotiate and pass two farm bills.

Thank you, Pat, thank you, Debbie, for believing in bipartisanship and believing in rural America.

I have worked with incredible folks. I thank John Boozman, from Arkansas, and have a great story.

A little known fact in the farm bill that we are all going to pass is that this is, maybe, the first piece of major legislation involving Cuba. We have lifted the ban of using the USDA programs to enhance export opportunities to the island of Cuba. It is the first time we will have addressed Cuba in any piece of major legislation.

I don’t know if Senator Carper is here, but I care about the post office.

You guys ought to, too, as we have ignored it for way too long.

I am going to give you a shout-out, Tom, and get everybody else interested because I am not going to be your partner anymore on the post office.

For those of you who care about politics, I want you to understand that when I made a post called “Fix My Mail’’ thinking I would get 20, 30 hits, in the little state of North Dakota, I got over 500 complaints about what was happening with the rural postal delivery.

If we can’t run the post office, how can we run the country? You all need to ask yourselves that question.

I am also incredibly proud of the stuff that I have done every day for North Dakotans. In six years, I have held over 3,400 meetings with North Dakotans both in Washington and in North Dakota. My office has provided responses to over 204,000 North Dakotans who reached out to me about various issues, and my office has helped over 18,000 North Dakotans with Federal agencies—getting their VA benefits, fixing issues with Social Security, helping to resolve immigration, and much, much more.

People always ask me: What is your greatest achievement in the Senate?

I can go through all of the things I just talked about, but I would like to talk about one thing. It’s a Native American who is from Spirit Lake Nation. He is a pipe maker, which is a very ceremonial and honorable position within their culture. He is also a Korean War vet and was one of the first people on the peninsula. He was injured and captured, but he literally saved lives during what was called the Tiger Death March. He ended up serving the entire Korean War in a prison camp.

When he got out, no one knew who he was. There was no documentation of the fact that he had been in the prisoner of war camp, there was no documentation that he had been injured. Senator Dorgan was able to get him his POW Medal. Guess what. He also didn’t get his Purple Heart. That bothered him because he had served and he had done incredible things in that service.

In scouring the Earth, we were able to find someone in Texas who would sign an affidavit—who said: Yes, he had been injured. When we presented that Purple Heart to this veteran, 86 years old, he got out of his wheelchair, saluted the flag, and hugged his medal.

You all have the power to do that. You all have the power to make just one little difference. Do that. It is a great thing even though it is not big legislation.

In knowing that we are doing the work of the people and in knowing that so many North Dakotans have met with me and told me about the incredible challenges they have had and the incredible obstacles they have faced, you can make a difference. You can help put food on their tables. You can help them to remain as families. You can help to get them healthcare. You can do big things, but the little things matter, too—little things that affect each one of their lives.

Despite all of the progress we have made during some difficult times, we aren’t done. Every day, I come to the floor and fight for rural America. There is a huge gap in productivity and a huge gap in economic viability. There is a huge gap. As we see the retreat of rural America, we become less in this country. As we see more and more wealth moving to urban areas, we have to address this issue. There are big clouds, I think, on the horizon that face this country and rural America. If Congress doesn’t tackle them head-on, our children and grandchildren will suffer the consequences.

This is an urgency that takes center stage for me. I wake up every morning and think: What am I going to do about rural America today? Do you know why? I am one of the few people here who does that, and it is because I represent a State that is still very rural. Even if you live in Fargo—it is not a big city to some, but it is a pretty big place to those of us in North Dakota—you are just one generation from Hillsboro or you are just one generation from Cooperstown.

I also want to say that we cannot sustain a record debt and deficit. This is a bipartisan challenge. This is a challenge of historic proportion. We are the only generation in America and in our history that has inherited from the “greatest generation’’—our parents—and that is borrowing from our kids. Shame on us. Shame on what we are doing right now. The Congressional Budget Office has said that our country’s debt is headed to its highest level since World War II. These actions will have serious consequences, including increasing the chances of there being a fiscal crisis, which we can’t ignore.

I urge you to put fact before fantasy. Fact before fantasy. Open your eyes. See this challenge.

Several months ago, when I voted against the tax bill that has greatly contributed, I think, to the record deficits we now face, I ran into an older man after I had given a speech at the Veteran’s Day service. He came up to me—it was actually before the vote—and said: Senator Heitkamp.

I said: Yes, sir.

He said: I want a tax break.

I said: I hear that a lot.

He said: But not at the expense of my kids.

He is still a patriot, that Vietnam veteran. He still knows what it means to sacrifice for the next generation. So the Federal government needs to be responsible as to how it spends its money.

I am grateful that my friend James Lankford is here because we toiled away at government efficiency. Many times, we toiled away in spite of our ideological differences. In spite of our world views on issues, we still believed that this government needs to be efficient, it needs to be effective, it needs to spend money in the right way. We marveled that no one seemed to care about it any more than just to show up for an occasional meeting.

That work can’t stop. I hope you will find an equal and willing partner in your work, Senator Lankford. I know your heart, and I know that, for you, this is a moral imperative—to spend every dollar that gets sent here the right way, the most efficient way, and to do things right so that we can tell the American public that we are spending their dollars responsibly and that we are making the right choices. We will have many, many more options, and we will grow the reputation of not only the U.S. government but of the U.S. Senate.

Income disparity is at a crisis as more individuals and families get left behind. The top 1 percent of families in America make more than 25 times what families make in the bottom 99 percent. Think about that. Let me repeat that—more than 25 times what families in the bottom 99 percent make. Much of the recent economic prosperity we have seen in this country has been concentrated on the coasts, leaving much of rural America behind.

The administration’s trade war is not something I have been shy in talking about, is causing an emergency in rural America, but I think it is going to cascade into a challenge and is going to domino into an economic peril for this country. I am not saying that we don’t need to address disparities and inequities in trade agreements. I am saying that you don’t need a 17th century solution, which is called tariff, to deal with a 21st century problem.

You all have to take responsibility. Think about this. Think about the unilateral ability of the White House to impose a tax on the American people and then, even more remarkably, to create a system over at the Department of Commerce that, basically, waives those taxes. How many of you would let the President decide who he is going to tax if it were income taxes and then for whom they will be waived? None of you would. Take responsibility. Congress needs to take back responsibility for tariffs before it is too late. These markets took years to develop for agriculture. They are not going to come back at the snap of a finger. When you look at the net farm income, it will be 13 percent lower in 2018 with no promise of increase in net farm income in the future, and this will cascade through rural America.

I also want to sound the alarm and go to Senator Blunt, who, I think, did a wonderful job, and I couldn’t agree with him more in my being the wife of a family physician who tells me every day that if he could only get his patients to be compliant with their hypertension and compliant with their diabetes. The single biggest factor is behavioral and mental health. That leads to challenges, and that challenge leads to despair, and that despair leads to a record rate of suicides.

I don’t know how many of you saw that the Economist magazine did a big story on suicides throughout the world, only one country is increasing—and that’s the United States of America in the developed nations. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of death by suicide jumped by 58 percent in North Dakota between 1999 and 2016.

That is why we have made it a priority in my office to address those underpinning causes of death by suicide and the challenges that we confront in various pockets of our population whether it is of our veterans, whether it is of Native Americans, or whether it is of young people. Now there is a growing rate of suicide among the elderly. Congress has to take steps. There is bipartisan support for addressing mental and behavioral health and looking at the comprehensive crisis of addiction.

As long as I have this soap box and you are all listening to me, can we just quit talking about opioids? Can we start talking about methamphetamines? Can we start talking about alcohol? Can we start talking about a culture of addiction and not just focus on the opioid addiction? It is the bright, shiny object that we always run to, but it is the cover story for a much bigger problem that we are not addressing in this country. So, please, please, face the addiction challenge head-on and in a broader context.

It also would not be like me if I didn’t talk about Indian Country, facing dire challenges with poverty, abuse, and addiction. Far too few Americans fully understand the challenges in Indian Country or the importance of tribal sovereignty, treaty rights, and cultural heritage. I have worked to educate many in this Chamber about those challenges, along with my colleague Lisa. I have also talked about the challenges of runaway and missing people with my colleague Susan Collins, who has been a great partner on so many things that I have done.

I think that when we find people of like heart and like commitment, we can do amazing and good things for the American public, but we all need to understand that the first people—our first Americans—should not be the last Americans. They should not be ignored when you have a unique position here given that your government, the U.S. government, signs treaties on sovereignty rights. So, when you look at the disparities, you can’t believe that we have done right by the treaties.

Finally, I want to talk about the crisis of childhood trauma, which I have already addressed, but this will be just to give you some numbers. These may be things that you haven’t thought about.

According to a Justice Department study, 58 percent of all American children had witnessed or had been crime victims in 2014. Traumatic experiences like abuse, neglect, witnessing a crime, and parental conflict can lead to ongoing, severe mental and behavioral health complications. For Native American children, these health risks are that much more prevalent.

When we look at the challenges ahead, there are larger issues for Congress to confront. Members of Congress cannot just look for a quick win to talk about in their states without their taking into account the long-term consequences of their actions. We need to look up, and we need to look bigger so that Congress is creating a solid future for our children and our grandchildren. If we do nothing else in this chamber, that would be an important first step.

Everyone Congress makes their own decisions about how they want to use their time, and it can come down to a few simple questions: Do you want to solve problems or not? Do you want to do right by your children and your grandchildren? That means all of our children and our grandchildren. Do you want to win a reelection no matter what the cost? Do you want to be able to look yourself in the mirror and say, “I did good today’’?

I implore those still serving and all of those who are about to join this chamber to seriously examine those questions. I hope that you will take up this mantle of the important, needed priorities. For many of you, all of those priorities are the same.

In fact, I thought we should do an experiment. One Tuesday—I challenge you—you should have the Democratic caucus, at its lunch, give a list of the 10 problems Americans confront that they want to solve. Then have the Republican conference do the same thing. I would bet that if you would match those two lists, they would look pretty similar. In fact, they would probably be identical. When the American public sees that you know the problems but that you can’t find the will to solve the problems, then they become understandably discouraged. So my work isn’t done. I will continue to do this work from a different vantage point.

As you soon start your work in the next Congress, with all of these challenges, please consider a few things. The Senate only works if we enable it to. That means each of us needs to do our job. We may not always agree, but I know senators can work together—as I have—to get results. I know that gridlock and partisanship do not have to rule the day. I have seen it firsthand.

A little ad-lib here. I also think that you, as senators, need to take power back from leadership. Too often, leadership determines the agenda. We should determine the agenda. I have seen it firsthand. I have seen that we can come together and solve problems, such as when climate change advocates and climate deniers come together on a carbon bill. If that isn’t an indicator that Congress can function, I don’t know what is, but it took political courage on both sides, particularly from my colleague from Rhode Island.

I don’t believe this country or the caucus is as divided as it seems. All of us—those serving in Congress and across the country—want our people to get a good education. They want affordable, quality healthcare. A good job that puts food on the table. Retirement security. They want all those things that build an economy, which is the foundation—it is the bedrock—of the might of this country, is the economy. People will point to the military, but the military cannot exist without the economic strength of this country.

I think that too often politicians create and profit from dividing us. It is the only profession where people are rewarded for blocking things from getting done. Think about that. It is no wonder the American public has such little faith.

I had a novel idea since I joined this chamber. I have been determined to get results and to put my state first, above political party. There are many around here, on both sides of the aisle, who know how to get results, too, and I encourage them to speak loudly, work clearly, seek compromise, and continue to do great and good works. I hope more senators will join them.

We also need more political courage in Congress. We need members of Congress who are willing to take tough votes because it is the right thing to do, even if it puts their reelection in jeopardy. We need more members who are not too scared to stand up when someone in their party uses fear and lies to win support.

There is a fine line between representing those you serve and being representative of them. They don’t always align. It is why we need to use facts and judgment—not polls—to make our decisions. Then it is up to each of us to explain those decisions. Simply put, sometimes leaders are needed to move public opinion to the right side of history. Remember that the decisions you are making, especially on big policy, will have consequences well beyond today.

I want to tell you about a Native American principle. It is called “seven generations.” It urges decision making in any way to look at how the current decisions that are made in this generation will affect seven generations—the next seven—and to think about how you can look to a much broader purpose.

I had a thing that I did in my office. When people would come in and they would have the issue of the day, I would say: Look up. What is on the horizon? Debt and deficit, a looming retirement crisis, a crisis in education, a crisis in addiction. Look up. What are we supposed to do? There is a crisis in infrastructure, in healthcare. Look up. What do we need to do today that seven generations later people will look back at? Don’t worry about a public opinion poll because you are making decisions not just for those people today. You are making decisions for the next seven generations, and they have to be the right decisions.

All of you know that you are better than the outcomes of Congress. You are nobler than the petty rhetoric that is bantered about here every day. Importantly, your reputation is tied to the reputation of every other member because we have no power independent of each other. The greatest power that we have is the collective power of the United States Senate. The success of your colleagues is your success. When great and hard things are done, you share in the satisfaction of a job well done.

It has been a true honor and a privilege to serve as a member of this chamber and to contribute to helping North Dakota and our country. I am grateful for that wonderful opportunity.

Over the last six years, I have made amazing friendships with all of you that I can’t talk about right now because it is too hard, but I want you to keep fighting for those shared dreams, for those dreams you shared with me, for those ideas that you had that will move this country forward. I want you to continue to dream and to continue to believe.

When I came here, I once came to a member, and I said: I have this really great idea. I told him about it, and he said: Yes, that is a really good idea.

I said: Let’s work on it.

He said: It will never happen.

I said: It is a good idea, right?

Yes, it is a really good idea, but it will never happen.

I said: We have to get out of the shared culture of failure, believing it can’t happen. It can happen. We can do really big and great things when we believe we can, when we refuse to accept failure, and when we refuse to believe that we are somehow limited. No one is tying you. No one is limiting you. You are a United State senator, and, collectively, you will make a difference.

I want to also thank other people. The first is the Capitol Police. Jokingly—only it is not a joke—some of my best friends here are Capitol Police. Some of the nicest people you are going to meet serve you in the dining room. Some of the greatest people are painting the walls out there here. Say hello. Don’t just walk by them. They serve you, and they are proud. They are proud of the work they do. They are wonderful people, and I want to thank them for their friendship.

I want to thank so many more people who cared about this place.

I also want to thank my staff, who are all here. Many of them are amazing people, and they are going to go on to do amazing things.

When I sign things, I say: Go do great and good things.

You can do great things, but they may not be good things. We have seen that throughout history.

I say: Go do great and good things.

And they will. They are amazing. They have given so much.

I know you all think you have the best staff. Unfortunately, I do. A lot of them are available, I just want to say. I want them to take what they have learned into their future endeavors. I want to make sure that the legacy that we leave is a legacy of service, of whom we serve and whom we stand for.

Finally, I want to thank my family: my husband Darwin, who is toiling in the clinic as we speak; my daughter Alethea, my son Nathan, and my six brothers and sisters, who are fairly famous all across North Dakota. I would like to just say that they have been my rock.

Finally, I want to thank my mom and dad because they taught me and my siblings to stand up for what is right, to have our voices heard. I know they are watching me from above, and I want to thank them for raising a rowdy, boisterous, and determined crew who remain each other’s best friends. My mother and my father made us strong, and I hope I have made them proud.

I yield the floor.