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A Conversation with Senator Thune: An Inside Look at Issues Impact Clubs

Thune Tax reform

Caption: “Sen. Thune, flanked by fellow Republican senators, addresses reporters following the Senate’s historic vote on pro-growth tax reform.”

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) made history when he won his seat in 2004 by defeating the sitting Democratic Majority Leader of the Senate—something that had not been done in more than 50 years. In the last 13 years, he has steadily advanced in the Senate leadership ranks. Today, he is the Republican Conference Chairman, the third-ranking member of the Senate Leadership team. In this role, Sen. Thune is influencing decisions regarding what legislation will be brought forward in the U.S. Senate.

Thune has held this role since 2012 after having served as chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee from 2009—2011. In addition to his leadership position, Thune is chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which has a wide jurisdiction over transportation, technology, and commerce-related issues in the country. He also is a member of the Senate Finance Committee, the tax writing committee of the Senate.

In December, Thune was voted as one of eight senators to serve on the Conference Committee to align the House and Senate tax bills. The fact that he is in the middle of the discussions regarding tax reform and the fact that he is a leader in the upper chamber made him a perfect legislator to interview for Club Director.

Thune grew up in Murdo, S.D. His attraction to public service took him to Washington, D.C., to work for former U.S. Senator Jim Abdnor. He then served at the Small Business Administration under an appointment from President Ronald Reagan.

In 1996, Thune won his first term as South Dakota’s lone member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He was reelected to a second term by the largest margin in South Dakota history and returned again to Washington in 2001 to serve his third term in the House. Thune then honored his campaign pledge to serve only three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Thune received his undergraduate degree at Biola University and his master’s degree in business administration from the University of South Dakota. He and his wife Kimberley live in Sioux Falls, S.D. They have two grown daughters, Brittany and Larissa.

We are pleased that Sen. Thune sat down with Club Director for this exclusive interview that covers a wide range of issues, from tax reform and health care to immigration and regulatory reform and more.


NCA: For many private clubs, the tax reform plan will provide much needed help. Allowing Americans to keep more of their paycheck is exactly what clubs, as small businesses, need.

Meaningful tax reform had not been passed by Congress in three decades. How does the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 help the American people?

THUNE:  The U.S. tax code is too large, too complicated, and too outdated, which is why Republicans in Congress worked hard this year to reform and modernize it so more middle-income Americans could keep more of what they earn. Getting a pro-growth tax reform bill on the president’s desk this year was a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and it’s been a humbling experience to have been a part of it, both as a member of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee and the conference committee that negotiated the final bill.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act delivers on the fundamental promise we made to the American people—that tax reform would be about helping middle-income Americans. The bill we sent to the president will lower tax rates for all taxpayers, and it will double the standard deduction and the child tax credit. It also makes several reforms to the business side of the tax code that will make it easier for businesses to expand and hire new workers. It will also create new opportunities for American workers.

The bill includes several provisions that I authored, including several that would simplify accounting rules and help small and medium-sized business owners recover costs more quickly on things like property, equipment, inventory, and other common business expenses. Also included in the final bill are provisions from my bipartisan S Corporation Modernization Act that would help bring the tax code further into the 21st century, which would help small and medium-sized businesses in communities throughout the United States.

Aside from all of the benefits I’ve already mentioned, Americans will still be able to benefit from writing off the cost of state and local taxes, including sales taxes, up to $10,000; a new deduction for pass-through businesses, which will lower the tax burden on business owners and help their operation grow; the mortgage interest deduction, which encourages home ownership; and the charitable deduction, which the bill expands to encourage Americans to continue reaching into their pockets to help those in need.

I’ve always said that it takes presidential leadership to do big things, and passing tax reform is no different. I’m glad the day has finally arrived and that we have a Republican-led Congress and a president who have been willing to take on this effort in 2017.


NCA: The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been problematic for the club industry and other small businesses. The National Club Association and its members have worked with you and other allies on Capitol Hill to repeal and replace the law. With the expiration of the reconciliation language that would have allowed for such changes, do you see any opportunity for a repeal measure coming back up in 2018?

In addition, many club leaders are looking for relief from some of the more onerous provisions of the law, such as the ACA’s inconsistent and unworkable requirements for seasonal employees, which lists two definitions for the exact same worker and requires a four-month timeframe and a six-month timeframe for the same seasonal staffer. The Simplifying Technical Aspects Regarding Seasonality Act (STARS) will be introduced by Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) to help reconcile these two timeframes and to ease the burden on clubs.

Issues like changing the definition of a full-time employee back to a 40-hour work week from the current 30 hours, and repealing the health insurance tax and the “Cadillac Tax” for high premium policies are also important to our members. You have supported these changes, too. Do you see any inclination for Congress to change these aspects of the law in 2018?

THUNE: It’s been more than seven years since Republicans first predicted that Obamacare would lead to higher costs and fewer health care options for the American people. I honestly hoped we’d be wrong and that Americans would be better off. But we weren’t. And they aren’t. Sure, Obamacare had good intentions, but good intentions don’t make up for bad policy.

For example, from 2013-2017, premiums on the South Dakota health care exchange more than doubled. Those kinds of rate increases are simply unsustainable, particularly for South Dakota families living paycheck to paycheck. Some folks have told me they’re paying $2,000 per month in premiums and have $7,000+ deductibles. It’s hard to call it insurance when the plan is too expensive for a family to even see the benefits.

My colleagues and I spent the better part of 2017 working on a legislative solution to stabilize the insurance markets, which continue to collapse today, and deliver health care that is more affordable, more patient-centered and more flexible than Obamacare—both for individuals purchasing their own coverage and for employers, including small and medium-sized businesses, that are forced to comply with Obamacare’s burdensome rules and regulations.

In my opinion, the bill we put forward in the Senate would have achieved all of these goals, but we came up a few votes short. That’s how the legislative process works sometimes, though. While it wasn’t the outcome I’d hoped for, I believe this is an issue we’ll have to deal with sooner rather than later, and I’m confident Congress will have another opportunity to do so in the future.

Obamacare is fundamentally flawed, and significant, wholesale changes are needed to make our nation’s health care system more efficient and effective. In the meantime, there are a lot of ideas out there to fix this part or that part of Obamacare, and I certainly support incremental fixes that would provide relief to families and businesses. In order to provide full relief, though, Congress needs to repeal this failed law.


NCA: Immigration policy remains a topline issue for many Americans. In the private club industry, we support e-verify and biometric identification measures to ensure visa holders who come into the country stay legally and leave when they are required to do so. The H2-B visa program, in particular, is extremely important to the club industry, as seasonal, temporary workers can mean the difference between success and failure for the year.

NCA and our allies on the Hill are working to get the H-2B visa program’s Returning Worker Exemption (RWE), which allows those who have been in the program before and who returned home when their visa expired to return in subsequent years without counting against the 66,000-visa cap, to be law again. The RWE expired a few years ago, and we would like to see it in the Department of Homeland Security’s Appropriations bill.

While we were unsuccessful in getting it included in FY18, will you work with us to help move it for FY19?

THUNE: I understand that the H-2B visa program is critically important to the success of many small and seasonal businesses, including private clubs. The temporary workforce it provides supplements the domestic labor force and can enable operators to run at greater capacities. Although the Returning Worker Exemption has lapsed, I will continue to support the H-2B program so employers can meet their labor needs with greater certainty.


Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has introduced the Regulatory Accountability Act, which will revamp how small business regulations would be created and reviewed. You’ve come out to support this bill. Do you seeing it gaining traction in 2018?

THUNE: Over the last decade or so, good jobs and opportunities for workers were hard to find. The labor force was at historic lows, inflation far exceeded wage growth and the economy barely limped along. While some people predict this stagnation will continue for the next several years, there are steps we have been taking this year to get our economy growing again, like by rolling back overly burdensome regulations.

Congress and the administration worked together this year to roll back some of the highly burdensome regulations that were implemented during the Obama administration, and efforts to scale back the costly Waters of the United States regulation, commonly known as WOTUS, and duplicative pesticide regulations continue. Additionally, Congress eliminated a regulation that imposed unnecessary requirements for businesses that bid on federal government contracts and another that restricted energy production on federal land, among others.

Regulations are like traffic lights in a busy town. If you don’t have any traffic lights, it’s difficult for people to get from one location to another safely. But if you add too many, you slow down people’s progress unnecessarily and make it difficult for them to get anywhere. It’s when you strike the right balance—some lights but not too many—that everyone moves effectively, efficiently and safely.

We’ve made significant progress this year, but we need to have a continued focus on removing these roadblocks, which is why I support regulatory reform and the president’s directive that for every new regulation that goes on the books, two more must be scrapped. This and other reforms will force the federal bureaucracy to take a hard look at its regulatory process to ensure consumers and businesses aren’t overly burdened by a heavy hand in Washington, D.C.


NCA: With the 2018 mid-term elections on the horizon, how has the increased threat of primaries against incumbent Republican senators impacted the movement of legislation and how has it impacted the outlook for 2018?

THUNE: I strongly believe that elected officials must be held accountable, which is why Republicans in Congress must work hard to deliver on the pro-growth agenda on which we all ran. I’m confident that by fulfilling these promises to the American people—like by reforming our wildly outdated tax code, for example—we will retain our majorities in both the House and Senate.


NCA: You first won your U.S. Senate seat in 2004. A lot has changed since then in terms of the country, our political discourse, how Americans get their news and how they view politicians.

Have you seen a change in the way senators collaborate with one another over the last have 13 years? How do we get back to civility?

THUNE: Despite all of the public disputes that are often litigated on cable news shows throughout what’s become a constant 24-hour news cycle, I have a very good working relationship with my Senate colleagues—Republican and Democrat. In fact, bipartisanship, which shouldn’t be viewed as a bad word, is often required in order to get things done in Congress.

For me personally, when I’m in Washington, most of my days begin in the Senate gym where there are no cameras, no congressional staff and no reporters. I can have open and honest conversations with my colleagues in a neutral environment, and I think it’s extremely beneficial.

I believe that Republicans and Democrats can have disagreements. They should, frankly, in a democracy. But disagreeing doesn’t mean we have to be disagreeable. I have strong beliefs, and I fight for them every day in the Senate, but it’s important to remember that there are 99 other senators who are doing the same thing, and we all want what’s best for our constituents and the rest of the American people.


NCA: How often do you get a chance to visit some of the great clubs in your state and enjoy playing a round of golf?

THUNE: I love being outdoors, so 18 holes with friends or family is something I always enjoy when I’m able to play. I try to get out at least once every summer with my dad who, at nearly 98 years old, can still make his way around a golf course better than I can—some things never change, I guess. It’s moments like those that I cherish far more than what ends up on any score card.

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