U.S. Rep. Tom Petri is spending part of his Independence Day recess in an area that, until recently, wasn’t part of his Sixth Congressional district — Columbia County.
Whether it’s participating on the Columbus Fourth of July parade, or riding the Colsac III ferry between Lodi and Merrimac, the Fond du Lac Republican has been making his presence known in Columbia County.
It was at the Lodi Public Library listening session on May 28 that Petri heard a request for assistance in attaining a grant to improve the park area on the ferry’s Columbia County side, located near Lodi in the town of West Point.
That, Petri said during a visit Tuesday at the Portage Daily Register, was when he first heard of the ferry.
Not long after, he boarded the ferry to take his first seven-minute ride across the Wisconsin River.
Petri will go back to Washington Monday to continue work on a variety of issues, including but not limited to the federal budget.
The House has passed a budget for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, Petri said. So has the U.S. Senate. The bills don’t agree, and they haven’t been sent to a conference committee — meaning it’s likely, he said, that Congress will adopt a continuing resolution to keep the federal government operating.
Now and then, Petri said, his constituents ask about the effects of sequestration — anticipated cuts in federal spending designed to help close the budget gap.
Representatives of county Health and Human Services departments, in particular, have expressed concern about the effect of sequestration on the services they provide, many of which are wholly or partly federally funded.
But Petri said those effects are not likely to be evident until subsequent budget years, when the federal cuts trickle down to lower levels of government.
One of the most prominent sequestration-related concerns has related to possible delays in airline travel, due to proposed cuts in the number of available air traffic controllers.
Petri, who has cultivated a specialty in aviation-related issues, said that concern hasn’t come to fruition.
But another issue related to air travel struck considerably closer to home.
The EAA AirVenture, one of the world’s largest aviation shows, is scheduled for July 29 to Aug. 4 in Oshkosh. According to Petri, that event brings in 10,000 airplanes and more than 500,000 people from 70 nations, making it the biggest aviation event in the world.
Petri said he’s taken the Federal Aviation Administration to task for telling the EAA (which originally stood for Experimental Aircraft Association) that the federal government would no longer foot the bill for additional air traffic controllers for AirVenture, citing the sequester as the reason.
Petri said he sees this as an attempt to impose “user fees” on general aviation, which he said would be a first step to doing the same thing to the airlines, which would certainly pass the costs to passenger. Aviation already pays its way, he said, through fuel taxes.
Another issue before Congress is immigration.
Petri said he has not read, cover to cover, the more than 1,000 pages of the immigration bill now being addressed, but many of his constituents have been keeping a close watch on the issue — including owners of Wisconsin Dells area resorts, many of which rely on “guest workers” from outside the United States. These constituents, Petri said, would like the provisions for “guest workers” to apply year-round, not just during agricultural production seasons.
The “sticky part” of any effort to reform immigration is “to give people confidence that you’ve put in place systems that fairly and effectively curtail new illegal immigration.”
Any blanket offers of amnesty for people who now live and work in the United States illegally, he said, is likely to be followed up with a similar proposal in the years and decades to come, unless there is some effective way to decrease the number of illegal immigrants.
That doesn’t necessarily entail a higher fence at the border, he said. Many people who are in the United States illegally entered legally, but remained, sometimes for years, past the expiration of their visas, he said. Closer oversight on visas, to ensure that people return to their home nations when they’re supposed to, would help address the challenge of illegal immigration, Petri said.
Petri has been in Congress since April 1979, but he said he hasn’t experienced the upsurge in partisanship that many have pointed to as the reason for gridlock in Congress.
“I don’t think it’s as bad as people presume,” he said. “I still find opportunities to work with people over the aisle.”
For example, he said, he worked with his Democratic colleague, Rep. Ron Kind of La Crosse, to introduce an amendment to the Farm Bill to limit crop insurance subsidies.
The Farm Bill, due to be reauthorized last year, still hasn’t received Congressional ratification, though Petri said he voted for it.
On the increasing influence of money on politics, Petri also takes a long-term view — that this issue has always posed a conundrum, and that at least some level of public funding for campaigns, by allowing taxpayers to designate a limited amount of their tax money for that purpose, might improve political participation.
“It’s a strange thing,” Petri said. “People always like free speech, the right to petition their government and the right to free association — but they don’t like lobbyists.”
Political action organizations are vital to maintaining the people’s ability to influence government’s course, he said.
“It’s not much of a right,” he said, “if you’re from a farm outside of Portage and you can’t go off to Washington, D.C., every day — but you can join the Farm Bureau.”