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What’s in a Round(s) Up? Just about everything you need to know about a senator’s week

Sen. Rounds during a Senate committee meeting
Sen. Rounds during a Senate committee meeting

News releases to media outlets back in the home state have long been expected from members of Congress.

In recent years, those members have also started writing personal columns and sharing photos of themselves meeting with dignitaries or D.C. visitors, along with videos of themselves speaking on the House or Senate floor or with some TV news station.

South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds does all that. He also does a weekly roundup. Er, I mean, Round(s) Up.

Maybe some member of Congress from South Dakota before Rounds did a weekly roundup. I can’t remember any.

And even if somebody did one, I can’t imagine it could have topped the one these days by Rounds.

First, there’s that name: Round(s) Up, which proves he hasn’t lost his sense of humor since he went to Washington, D.C.

Second, it’s always worth reading. And if offers a fascinating look at a typical week of a U.S. senator

Take the Round(s) Up from last week. Rounds met with members of the South Dakota Wheat Growers Association and school board members from the Associated School Boards of South Dakota.

That was just a start. He also met with individuals from Mitchell, Pierre, White River and Woonsocket. Home-state citizens show up all the time in D.C. It’s nice when they get the opportunity to chat with their senator or senators.

And then there were visitors from a lot farther away

Rounds also met with these people last week: Crown Prince Al-Hussein Ibn Abdullah of Jordan; members of the Romanian Parliament, including Sen. Titus Corlatean, chairman of the Romanian Senate Foreign Relations Committee; and Ramus Haradinaj, former prime minister of Kosovo.

Rounds shaking hands with the Crown Prince Al-Hussein Ibn Abdullah of Jordan
Rounds shaking hands with the Crown Prince Al-Hussein Ibn Abdullah of Jordan

And these people, too: Sandra L. Thompson, director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency; Robert Fisher, vice president of Federal Government Affairs at Verizon; Catherine MacGregor, CEO of ENGIE North America, a green-energy company; and Mouloud Said, representative of Western Sahara to the United States.

The Republican senator also met with delegations from the African nations of Burundi, Kenya and the Togolese Republic.

Ever wonder what’s going on in the Togolese Republic? Me neither, until I read the Round(s) Up. So I snooped around a bit found out that the West African nation is more commonly called Togo, has a population of 8.7 million and designates French as its official language.

Togo is one of the poorest nations on earth. About a third of the population are animists, followed by Roman Catholics, Sunni Muslims, Protestants and other Christian denominations.

There’s a lot more to know about Togo, including the work between the Togolese government and United States to provide humanitarian, economic and military aid and expertise, as well as trade relations. So each meeting with a U.S. senator matters.

Sen. Rounds with Justin Smith, left, and David Bordewyk of the South Dakota Newspaper Association
Sen. Rounds with Justin Smith, left, and David Bordewyk of the South Dakota Newspaper Association

And speaking of meetings, I was busy back here in Rapid City meeting with a couple of friends for chai tea latte in a downtown bistro. Yeah, that’s right. I have big meetings, too. Plus, I did some other things. But then, so did Rounds.

For example, he joined Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the only Democrat in Montana to hold statewide office (which is, of course, one more than South Dakota has), in introducing the PASS Act. The bill would prohibit China, Russia, Iran and North Korea from acquiring or investing in American agricultural land or ag businesses.

“Securing our land is critical to maintaining our national security,” Rounds said in his weekly Round(s) Up, noting that the legislation has received good support from the South Dakota ag community and from members of both parties in Congress. He said he and Tester hope to have it included in a larger legislative package.

If you bring up “China” and “investing” it’s hard to avoid EB-5

This is a reminder of how things have changed in our relationship with China. As a state, we used to be hungry for economic relations and stronger trade with China and its 1.4 billion people. I remember specifically a decade writing about trade missions to China involving Gov. Dennis Daugaard and other state officials. Such missions were once considered a wave of the future.

China also was considered rich ground for investors. Take the EB-5 program that operated in South Dakota during Rounds’ years as governor.

EB-5 was a national program that allowed qualified foreign investors — in South Dakota’s case, some from China — to invest in businesses in exchange for permanent U.S. residency through green cards for themselves and their families.

Through an EB-5 operation initially affiliated with the state, investors from China and South Korea provided millions of dollars for a proposed meatpacking plant in Aberdeen that was to be called Northern Beef Packers. But that planned operation ended up in bankruptcy with millions of unpaid bills.

The meatpacking-plant idea was eventually revived as DemKota Ranch Beef under new owners. It is now operating, apparently with some success. However, EB-5 ended up in a tangle of controversy and public scandal that surfaced a couple of years after Rounds left office.

A former state official who was alleged to have stolen funds to be used for the program was found dead of a shotgun blast in what investigators determined to have been a suicide. And another official who coordinated the EB-5 program in South Dakota for many years pleaded guilty to mishandling funds and was fined $2,000 and given two years’ probation.

I have no reason to suspect that Mike Rounds knew anything about the mishandling of funds for the program, by the way. I bring it up only because China has become such a controversial nation and such an often-used political tool, and especially because Rounds mentioned investments from China in his Round(s) Up.

Go Jacks! And who actually got that political science degree?

Now on to happier news from the senator’s busy week. Rounds and John Thune, the state’s senior U.S. senator (He’s a few years younger than Rounds but has been in the Senate longer) passed a resolution in the Senate honoring the South Dakota State University football team for winning the FCS National Championship game with a 45-21 win over perennial champion North Dakota State University.

Like me, Rounds attended SDSU. Between the two of us, we have one degree: a bachelor’s of science in political science. I’ll leave it up to you to decide who has it.

Meanwhile, way to go Jacks!

Next up, Rounds got his committee assignments: 1) Armed Services 2) Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs 3) Select Committee on Intelligence 4) Veterans’ Affairs 5) Indian Affairs.

They’re all important assignments, with Indian Affairs being particularly relevant to South Dakota. Armed Services is crucial to Ellsworth Air Force Base and the coming B-21 Bomber. And Intelligence, a new committee assignment for Rounds, is vital to national security.

Rounds addressed the Intelligence Committee work with a quote: “With my new assignment on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, I will begin to receive a much higher volume of classified briefings. Most of our meetings are all classified business – I had three classified Intel meetings already this past week! We also had our bi-weekly cyber education seminar and a Senate Armed Services Committee briefing on the Chinese surveillance balloon and conflict in Ukraine.”

Then he took time for a little political jab: “Unlike some in the Executive Branch, don’t expect to find any classified documents in my home or next to my Corvette. These documents belong in a secure compartmentalized information facility (or SCIF) and nowhere else!”

First: If only the senator had called, I could have helped with the dangling modifier in that first sentence. Second: Rounds has a Corvette? Third: By “the Executive Branch” I assume Rounds meant Donald Trump and Mike Pence, as well as Joe Biden.

A slow week for votes leaves room for a political jab

And here’s a little more politicking: Rounds said the “new Congress and Democrats are off to a slow start,” noting that just three non-controversial votes were taken during the week on the Senate floor. Two involved positions on the U.S. Institute of Peace. The third was a resolution in observance of January as National Trafficking and Modern Slavery Prevention Month.

Rounds wanted more action, but with a caveat:

“While it could be easy to get frustrated at the dysfunction, it’s important to remember that every day our Senate Democrat colleagues propose a light schedule, the less damage they can inflict on our nation,” he said.

If you know Rounds, you probably know that jab was more light-hearted than it might seem. And it’s kind of the way the game is played, especially these days. At least he didn’t play the “communist” or “socialist” card that some of his GOP colleagues so enthusiastically embrace.

And, of course, the Senate Democrats can always respond: “At least we don’t have Ted Cruz.”

If Rounds happens to read this, he won’t be able to resist a smile at that. Most U.S. senators, including many in the GOP, like Ted Cruz about as much as I do. And he’s still better than Marjorie Taylor Greene. But that’s a House of Cards I’ll leave for another time.

I’m jumping around a bit on the Round(s) Up, because I’m saving the best — the prayer breakfast with Biden and a longstanding spirit of bipartisanship — for last.

For now, we’ll conclude the political gamesmanship by Rounds with a video that actually wraps up the Round(s) Up. It’s an interview with Neil Cavuto of Fox News about the Chinese observation balloon that passed over the United States and was ultimately shot down by U.S. fighters just off the coast of South Carolina.

Flying high on Fox with the Chinese balloon critique

Rounds and Cavuto agreed that there were many disturbing questions that needed to be answered by the Biden administration about why the balloon wasn’t shot down earlier. Administration officials have said they waited until it cleared land to avoid the possibility of injuries or property damage from falling debris. Plus they figured a fall into water might leave more intact or salvageable parts that could be effectively analyzed.

Following the balloon across the nation also gave military and security professionals time to study its movements and evaluate its purpose.

Rounds, a pilot, disagrees with the way it was handled.

“In my opinion, the balloon was shot down one continent too late,” he said in the Round(s) Up. “It never should have been allowed in U.S. airspace.”

Cavuto briefly mentioned the fact that, after Trump left office, Biden administration officials discovered that three Chinese balloons invaded U.S. airspace during the Trump years.

Here I’ll make a rough transition, from balloons to bucking broncs. Among the assignments that Rounds’ South Dakota staff handled during the week was operating a booth at the Black Hill Stock Show & Rodeo. I’m not aware, however, of any staffers who actually tried to ride the rough stock there.

And under “steps taken this week” the senator literally lists steps taken — by him: 51,305, or 24.05 miles. That put him a couple of miles short of the standard distance of a marathon. But still, that’s some admirable footwork for a U.S. senator during a week’s worth of work for his state and nation.

And your typical marathoner doesn’t have to deal with obstacles like Ted Cruz along the way.

A bipartisan breakfast built on a tradition of prayer

OK, enough with the Cruz cuts. On to the prayer breakfast, by way of the Senate Bible Study group. A devout Catholic, Rounds is an active member of the study group, which last week focused on Philippians 1:6, from the epistle of the Apostle Paul to the faithful in the city of Philippi.

Philippians 1:6 says: “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

In other words, there’s hope. Hang in there. God won’t quit on you.

I’d guess the study group examined Paul’s words more thoroughly than I did, however. And the group wasn’t the only structured prayer session of the week for Rounds. He was also one of the leaders in hosting the National Prayer Breakfast.

“Each year, the National Prayer Breakfast provides an opportunity for us to come together, Republicans and Democrats alike, and pray for the success of our nation,” Rounds said.

Rounds pointed out that the prayer breakfast started shortly after I was born. OK, he didn’t actually point that out, but it’s true. I was born in November of 1951. Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected president a year later, with backing from Republicans like Frank Carlson.

Carlson was a Kansas farmer who served in the Army during World War I before returning to his home state to work the land. He did, for a while. But it wasn’t long before he started plowing the fields of politics, too. Carlson was elected to the Kansas House of Representatives in 1928, beginning a political career that would span 40 years and see him also serve as a congressman, governor and U.S. senator.

During Eisenhower’s first year as president, he confided to Carlson that the White House was a lonely place to live. That inspired Carlson to invite him to the Senate Prayer Breakfast.

Eisenhower attended and a tradition was born, eventually developing into the National Prayer Breakfast it is today.

Rounds said it’s a valuable tradition.

“The job of president isn’t easy and you often find yourself in the midst of difficult political situations. However, as the president you should still be able to count on our prayers for the success of our country,” Rounds said in his Round(s) Up. “The National Prayer Breakfast provides an opportunity for us to recognize our common bonds and to offer our prayers to one another, our president and our nation.”

To which I say, “Amen.”

Now, if only that spirit could be more common in the day-to-day business of governing in Washington, D.C.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.