WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) today discussed his work during the August state work period, which he spent traveling throughout South Dakota, meeting with constituents, visiting fairs, and he even held a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation field hearing on rural broadband in Sioux Falls.
Thune’s remarks below (as prepared for delivery):
“Mr. President, it was a good August.
“While I head back to South Dakota almost every weekend, August gives me the chance to spend multiple uninterrupted weeks back home, visiting with South Dakotans and traveling to the far corners of the state.
“August is also fair season in South Dakota.
“And there is nothing better than a South Dakota fair.
“This year I got to attend the South Dakota State Fair, the Brown County Fair, the Sioux Empire Fair, and the Turner County Fair.
“And as usual, I had a great time at all four.
“The people are the best part of course.
“Although the fair food isn’t far behind.
“I’m still dreaming of the Tubby Burger I had at the Brown County Fair.
“They don’t have burgers like that in D.C.
“Agriculture is the lifeblood of South Dakota, and as always, a lot of my conversations over August were centered around agriculture.
“Farmers and ranchers have had a very rough few years, and addressing the needs of our agriculture community is one of my top priorities in Congress.
“One big concern for our producers is ethanol and biodiesel.
“While we received some good news this year with the approval of year-round E15 sales, the ethanol industry is still facing significant challenges owing to the excess of small refinery waivers that have been issued.
“Perhaps the biggest concern for our farmers right now is trade.
“Multiple protracted trade disputes have exacerbated an already struggling ag economy and have left farmers and ranchers unsure how markets are going to look going forward.
“While ranchers received some good news in August with the announcement that the administration has reached a deal to increase U.S. beef sales to Europe, that’s just a tiny fraction of what we need to do trade-wise.
“Each time I speak with the president and his administration, I tell them what South Dakota farmers have told me: We need to conclude negotiations on the various trade deals we’re working on as soon as possible to open new markets and expand existing ones – and to give agriculture producers certainty about what the playing field is going to look like going forward.
“One of my priorities right now is pushing for passage of the United States-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement.
“The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement will preserve farmers’ access to two of our nation’s most significant agricultural export markets – Canada and Mexico – and substantially expand market access for U.S. dairy products in Canada.
“Negotiations on this agreement have already been concluded.
“We need Democrats in the House to indicate their willingness to take it up and pass it.
“Mr. President, August is always a great time to share with South Dakotans what I’m working on in Washington and get their feedback, which is why I’m glad I had the opportunity to host four town hall meetings, tour numerous local businesses, and visit nearly every corner of the state.
“As South Dakotans know, I’m a long-time member of the Senate Commerce Committee.
“I served as chairman of the committee in the last Congress, and I currently chair the Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet.
“This has given me the chance to address a number of issues facing Americans, from the frustration of illegal robocalls to the data privacy concerns we all face in the internet age.
“It’s also given me the chance to focus on digital issues that affect rural states like South Dakota – particularly the lack of high-speed internet access in rural areas.
“To residents of large cities, being without access to high-speed internet is unthinkable.
“But for families in rural areas, which lack the telecommunications infrastructure of cities and suburbs, even basic internet access can sometimes be a struggle.
“Broadband access is frequently just a dream.
“And that has real consequences for these Americans.
“It’s not just a matter of being able to stream Netflix without interruption.
“In our digital economy, a lack of reliable, high-speed internet access means losing out on opportunities to grow your business.
“It means fewer educational opportunities.
“It means fewer health care resources, in areas that already lack easy access to specialty care services.
“Telehealth promises to reduce some of the geographic barriers to care for individuals in rural areas, but it depends largely on high-speed internet access.
“Then there’s the rapidly developing field of precision agriculture.
“Precision agriculture, which uses tools like robotics and remote monitoring to help farmers manage their fields, promises to help farmers substantially increase their yields while reducing their costs.
“But once again, it depends on reliable access to high-speed internet.
“That’s why I’ve made this issue such a priority.
“Nationwide, the digital divide is shrinking, as more and more Americans gain access to broadband.
“And in South Dakota, we’re ahead of the curve, thanks to people like Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken, who has worked aggressively to remove barriers to telecommunications investment in Sioux Falls.
“And I was very encouraged by the Federal Communications Commission’s recent announcement that it will invest $705 million over the next decade to bring broadband to rural areas in South Dakota that currently go without.
“But there’s more work to be done.
“And I’m committed to pushing this issue until reliable broadband access is standard for rural America.
“During the last week of the August break, I brought the Commerce Committee to Sioux Falls, to conduct a field hearing on rural broadband.
“We brought an FCC commissioner with us so that he could hear directly from South Dakotans who are on the front lines of rural broadband expansion and leading the innovations that come along with it.
“It was a great hearing, and I’m very encouraged by the progress we’re making on this issue.
“And I look forward to doing more work on this issue in the coming months.
“I’m energized by the time I spent with South Dakotans during the August break, and I’m looking forward to continuing to fight for South Dakota’s priorities here in Washington this fall.
“Mr. President, before I close, I want to take a minute to recognize one of the people who has been instrumental in helping me serve South Dakotans throughout my time in the Senate.
“This week, my whip office chief of staff, Brendon Plack, is leaving my office after 14 years.
“He’s been with me during my entire time here in the Senate – from my very first month on the job – and it’s difficult to imagine the office without him.
“He started out at the bottom, as the guy who had to drive me to evening events so that I could squeeze in a little more work or a few more phone calls to South Dakota on the way.
“But he was always cheerful about it – and even better, he drove well and he never ran out of gas.
“(That may not sound like a big deal, but having been subsequently stranded on the way to an event after running out of gas, I appreciate Brendon’s preparedness.)
“Brendon soon moved up to legislative correspondent, and then legislative assistant.
“And then up from there.
“Policy director. Legislative director. Staff director. Chief of staff.
“He has been an indispensable part of my team.
“No job has ever been too big for Brendon; no task too hard.
“It doesn’t matter how long the hours get – he’s always willing to put in the work that needs to be done.
“And he stays cheerful through it all, lifting everyone else up with him.
“He’s a natural leader, who is not only exceptionally talented himself but is great at spotting talent in others.
“He helped me put together an outstanding team for the whip office, and he has helped me maintain an outstanding team in my personal office.
“In politics, you meet people who are great at the nuts and bolts of policy and know every detail of an issue.
“And you meet people who aren’t as focused on the details but who have an ability to see the big picture and how what we’re doing fits our larger goals.
“You don’t always meet people who can do both.
“But Brendon has always been able to get into the nuts and bolts of a policy and at the same time see the bigger picture.
“One of the things I’ve appreciated most about Brendon is the fact that no matter what we’re doing, South Dakota is at the forefront of his mind.
“As a native of Madison, South Dakota, and the son of a farmer, Brendon has a keen insight into South Dakotans’ priorities.
“And whether it’s tax reform or energy legislation or agriculture, Brendon is always thinking about how we can serve South Dakota on the national stage.
“And he’s played a key role in so many of the things I’ve been able to get done for South Dakota here in Washington.
“Now, I’ve described a pretty outstanding individual here.
“But Brendon is not without his flaws.
“He is a long-time Vikings fan.
“Over the past 14 years, I’ve tried hard to convince him that he should be rooting for the Packers, but so far I haven’t gotten anywhere.
“Fortunately, our shared appreciation for the tuba has helped us get over our major disagreements on football.
“Both Brendon and I are tuba players from way back … although I think Brendon is a little more accomplished than I am.
“I never made it beyond the high school marching band, but Brendon went to Augustana University in South Dakota on a music scholarship and played in the concert band.
“I just learned he actually lost his tuba scholarship to dedicate time to my campaign.
“Mr. President, as I said earlier, it’s hard to think of my office without Brendon.
“He will be deeply missed.
“But I look forward to watching him excel in all his future endeavors.
“And I know he may enjoy having a little more time to spend with his wife Lindsay and his little ones Timmy and Katie Lou.
“Days on the Hill can be very long.
“Mr. President, if you ask Brendon how he got into politics, he’ll tell you about the meeting he attended in college where I was the guest speaker.
“That meeting, Brendon says, got him interested in politics for the first time.
“Shortly after, he applied to work on my first Senate campaign, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“To hear Brendon tell it, attending that meeting was a lucky day for him.
“But I know that it was an even luckier day for me, and for the people of South Dakota.
“Mr. President, I yield the floor.”