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Peterson upset over 'grounding'

With a constituency that covers 35 of Minnesota's 87 counties, spanning 400 miles from north to south, U.S. Congressman Collin Peterson has always found it most practical to use his private, single-engine airplane for transportation around the district on official business.

But since Jan. 4, his plane has been sitting in a hangar at the Detroit Lakes airport, unused -- and he's become increasingly frustrated by the cause of its "grounding."

Peterson has been unable to fly his plane -- or at least, to be reimbursed for mileage incurred while using it for official business -- since the House passed new ethics legislation in January.

The intent of the legislation was good, Pet-erson noted in a Tuesday telephone interview. "They were trying to ban travel on corporate jets (by members of Congress) ... we had some members that flew on them 200-300 times a year," he said.

But unfortunately, the people that were put in charge of drafting the legislation didn't know enough about the different classifications of aircraft to include the right definition in the bill's language, according to Peterson.

Thus, Peterson and the "six or seven other members" of Congress that have used their own private planes to get around their districts on official business were no longer able to use them, or receive reimbursement for mileage incurred. So he went to the people who wrote the legislation and asked for clarification.

"They said it was not their intent to affect the members using our own private planes to get around our districts," Peterson said. So he sought a simple solution.

On the floor of the House, Peterson asked Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., a member of the Rules Committee, whether the new rules would apply to members who use their own planes. Hastings said the law was not intended to apply to members using private planes, either for personal campaigns or official business.

By using this question-and-answer process, known as a colloquy, Peterson said, "I thought the problem had been taken care of," and he and the other members of Congress who used private planes in this manner would be able to fly and receive mileage reimbursement from their office's budget, as before.

Until the Ethics Committee intervened -- and said the language of the law could not be interpreted this way.

Frustrated, Peterson stated that "I would try to get a bill passed that would make it illegal for any member of Congress to drive their own car (on official business)," he said Tuesday.

And according to a report in Monday's Minneapolis Star Tribune, he also told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that "if she didn't get this fixed, I was going to quit and there was going to be a Republican in my place."

"I was just spouting off," Peterson admitted. "I wanted to get them to understand that this was serious business."

If the ethics language is not fixed to allow him to use his private plane again, Peterson added, "I don't know what I'm going to do... If I tried to drive (instead of fly), I wouldn't get anything done."

According to the Star Tribune, Peterson has flown to at least 47 cities in his district in the past two years. He uses small airports or private landing strips to get around.

Peterson's press secretary, Allison Myhre, said that when he goes to Washington, D.C., Peterson usually flies his plane from his home in Detroit Lakes to the Twin Cities and then takes a commercial flight to Washington. He only uses his plane for flying around the district, she added.

Peterson also said that what he receives in mileage reimbursement from the federal government does not completely cover the cost of flying -- "but it's worth it because you get three times as much done."

Peterson is presently working with other House members on drafting legislation that will clarify the issue and allow him to take to the skies again.

"Hopefully, when we get back (in session) next week, we will have a solution that the House leadership agrees to," he said, noting that Congress is not in session during President's Week.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454