Congressman Thomas Petri

On Wednesday, April 23, 1997 Interracial Voice Editor/Publisher Charles Michael Byrd interviewed Wisconsin Republican Congressman Thomas Petri (pronounced pee-TRY) who has introduced H.R. 830 into the United States House of Representatives. Here is that interview.

INTERRACIAL VOICE (IV): What district in Wisconsin do you represent, Congressman Petri?

CONGRESSMAN PETRI: The 6th Congressional district. I'm from Fond du Lac.

IV: Congressman, what would H.R. 830 do if passed?

CONGRESSMAN PETRI: It would add an additional category to the Census that will be conducted in the year 2000 for people to check so far as racial background. Currently you can put Caucasian or Asian or Hispanic or black but not multiracial, and this would have the multiracial category. There are increasing numbers of citizens who marry across racial lines, and of course their children are multiracial but currently are being forced to choose between the father's or the mother's racial identity, and that's really not fair to them.

IV: What specifically compelled you to introduce this bill?

CONGRESSMAN PETRI: I was the senior Republican for several Congresses on the subcommittee of the Post Office and Civil service committee of the Congress that had responsibility for the Census Bureau. We had hearings starting about three or four years ago to begin identifying some of the issues and trying to figure out changes that might be made in the next Census. This is done every ten years.

IV: Was this Representative Sawyer's subcommittee?

CONGRESSMAN PETRI: Yes. He was the Chairman, and I was the senior Republican on it, but the committee has been abolished and has been folded into the Government Operations Committee. They will be having hearings on this issue this morning, and they did last Congress as well. We had a lot of witnesses come before the Committee both pro and con about this. I can remember a woman coming who was Korean, I think, whose husband was African-American, and they had met while he was in the service in South Korea. Their children were being assigned to either the Asian or African category when they really didn't want to have to choose between their mother or their father. This additional category was greeted by some resistance and skepticism on the part of some of the organizations representing different categories. They were afraid, I think, their percentage or numbers might be affected if there were a large number of people who chose multiracial, that it might disadvantage groups of people in affirmative action lawsuits and various other funding programs. Nonetheless, it seemed to me, the more compelling argument was from the individuals, that this does in fact put kids in a difficult situation, and my sense of it was that this sentiment is very wide-spread. That's reinforced by this sort of serendipitous emergence of Tiger Woods. I think he's made up of about four different racial categories, as it turns out, so I suspect he'd like to be able to choose multiracial, rather than have to try to put down black or Asian or whatever.

IV: I believe he's publicly announced that he is more than just one.

CONGRESSMAN PETRI: Yeah. He was talking on Oprah Winfrey yesterday, and that's when he was saying it.

IV: I understand you introduced a similar measure last year. Correct?

CONGRESSMAN PETRI: Yes, and we did receive a number of co-sponsors. We're just starting this year. We have a couple but not a whole lot. I'm sure we'll get quite a few more.

IV: When you introduced the measure last year, many of us in the mixed-race community knew nothing about it.

CONGRESSMAN PETRI: Now, it's getting a lot of attention. I think that the Census Bureau, partly as a result of the hearings and because of the interest expressed -- maybe somewhat spurred on by the introduction of this legislation -- has been doing some studies and sample tests to determine or estimate how many people would choose this category, and how many people are out there. It doesn't look to me like they are, in fact, resisting this, and they may well decide on their own to include this category after thinking about it and seeing what the sentiment is.

IV: Your bill, however, is independent of their work.

CONGRESSMAN PETRI: Right. I think my bill is basically a spur or a prod or a way for people to say, "Yeah, you ought to take a real good look at this."

IV: Just so we're clear on this, if OMB decides not to establish a multiracial category, your bill would still be an alternative.

CONGRESSMAN PETRI: Yeah. They could be compelled to do it. I would guess, however, that if this gets a fair amount of interest and support, that they'll do it. I think with Tiger, the cat's out of the bag, so to speak.

IV: Timing is everything. Congressman, for those of us who are not well versed in these matters, take us through the legislative process. What is involved in introducing a bill, and what happens next.

CONGRESSMAN PETRI: Well, a bill is introduced...

IV: Someone comes up with the idea in your office and someone writes it down on paper...

CONGRESSMAN PETRI: We usually get the Legislative Drafting Bureau to write it up. They check where in the existing statutes this would make sense to add, and it's drafted as an additional line in an existing law. Then, it's put in what they call the hopper, which is just a little box down on the House floor, and then the Parliamentarian assigns it to the committee that he feels has jurisdiction over it. The committee or subcommittee chairman, when they get the bill and other bills, review them and, if they think there's something there, they schedule hearings. Meanwhile, the author of the bill, in this case me, will often send out what we call a Dear Colleague letter to inform different offices on the Hill about the legislation and ask them to co-sponsor it. This also sometimes helps with groups that are organized and have a lobbyist or Washington representative looking at thing. They'll pick up the bill's introduction and notify their members around the country, and then they will often call or write their legislators and say, "Hey, House Bill #200 has been introduced, and I think it's a good idea. As my representative, will you co-sponsor it?" That is really how most people end up deciding whether to co-sponsor legislation or not. It's normally because of requests from their constituents.

IV: How many co-sponsors do you have now?

CONGRESSMAN PETRI: I don't think we have more than a couple. In the last Congress, we had a total of four. It was, however, introduced pretty late, and didn't get a whole lot of attention, although the committee did have a hearing on it, and they expressed some interest in it. But the Census Bureau did pick up on it, and has been thinking about it.

IV: Were any of the national multiracial advocacy groups aware of last year's effort on your part?

CONGRESSMAN PETRI: I'm not sure, but I think so. We may have met with one or two, but I did this on my own, because I had attended the hearings, had listened, and it seemed like a good idea to me. So, I really wasn't fronting for anyone. In fact, my constituency happens to be one of the more homogenous in the country. It's not a particularly burning issue in our district. There probably would be a little bit more interest out on the West Coast or Eastern cities or in the Southwestern part of the country, because you have a lot of people who are probably having a lot of multiracial children.

IV: Well, I'm mixed and from Virginia, and I can tell you there are some families that have been mixed for generations.

CONGRESSMAN PETRI: Oh, yeah, and there's a lot in the military. It used to be,'s very interesting to see how the whole thing has evolved, in the last century the Census had all kinds of mixed-race questions. There was a mulatto category. They had quadroon. They tried to ask people what percentage Indian they were. They still use that sort of thing for tribal identity purposes. You have to be a certain percentage Indian in order to count and all this kind of stuff. Then that became unfashionable, and they drifted away and tried to force everyone into one category. I think now we're going to see, over the next three or four Censuses -- if they include this multiracial category -- the number of multiracial people really mushroom. It's happened in Brazil and a lot of Latin American countries already.

IV: One of the criticisms of the multiracial initiative that has come from the traditional civil rights organizations is that it's supposedly backed by conservative whites, especially conservative Republicans who want to somehow use this to dismantle affirmative action, efforts designed to monitor racism against minorities, etc. Can you comment on that?

CONGRESSMAN PETRI: I can understand the concern, but if one of the goals is to treat everyone equally, on the merits, and in fact people are treating each other that way and are inter-marrying...I mean we are making progress, right?

IV: Yes.

CONGRESSMAN PETRI: So why not measure it, and why keep on saying we aren't?

IV: Why deny the progress?

CONGRESSMAN PETRI: Yes. I understand that those organizations' goal is to deal with the problem, and the bigger the problem is, the happier they are I guess -- from the point of view of having something to organize around and raise money for and protest. If we are in fact making progress, though, I would think they'd be happy and would want it to be measured rather than denying it or making the problem worse than it really is or trying to make it look worse.

IV: So, you don't see this as conservative versus liberal or Republican versus Democrat?

CONGRESSMAN PETRI: In fact, I was actually a little surprised and pleased that the co-sponsors in the last Congress were almost all what people would regard as from the liberal wing of the Democratic party -- people like Ron Dellums and many members of the Black Caucus. So, it could be that they heard from some in their communities where there's a high percentage of people who would like to check multiracial. I don't really know, but it was not as if all the right-wing crowd descended on it and co-sponsored it. If it was going to be given a political coloration, it was more from the Black Caucus and the liberal side. That wound up being, interestingly enough, where the interest was.

IV: Getting back to the process itself, you're looking for co-sponsors, and hearings are held on the matter where people come in and testify before the committee. Then what happens?

CONGRESSMAN PETRI: Then the committee will, if they think the bill has merit, schedule a markup, and the members will gather to offer amendments to it or substitutes to it to reflect the testimony and their own ideas on the subject. Then it goes to the full committee and the same process is followed, and then it goes to the House of Representatives where all the members have a chance to further amend it or vote on it. If it doesn't seem too controversial, they sometimes put it on what is called the "suspension calendar" which a small bill like this would be a legitimate candidate for. If that is done, it has to pass by two-thirds, but it can't be amended. So, it's a bit of a gamble. If you think you really have a lot of support, and it's in good shape, you can put it on the suspension calendar, and you don't have to worry about amendments.

IV: But you do need a two-thirds vote.

CONGRESSMAN PETRI: Yes, and that's a call that people have to make, but normally they have a pretty good feeling about how people feel about it by the time it comes out of the full committee.

IV: Then if the House passes it...

CONGRESSMAN PETRI: It then goes to the Senate. I don't know if any bill has been introduced at all, but a "companion bill " will then be introduced. If one hasn't been, and your community is interested in it, then they should get some Senator to introduce one right away. The Senate would go through the same process. If the bills are in different form, there a "committee of conference" where representatives from the House and Senate get together, iron out the differences, and then it's re-passed by both houses and sent to the President. He has a choice of signing or vetoing it. If he signs it, the bill becomes law. If he vetoes if, Congress can still override his veto and pass it, notwithstanding his veto, with a two-thirds majority. So, it's a fairly long, cumbersome process, and everyone gets a kick at the can. In the course of it, though, what normally happens is that a national consensus gradually forms. It doesn't have to be unanimous, but either people in the civil rights community will give up on it, because a lot of them are torn. They don't like to speak out very much on it, because they have many members who would like this. So, they will talk privately that they don't like it, but they don't like to go on record saying that they don't like it that much. So, they may very well decide to take a bye on it at the end of the day, if it looks like it's going to happen anyway. Especially with Tiger, but the more support and interest there can be, the more likely it is that it will either be done by legislative action or by bureaucratic decision.

IV: It's generally agreed that 75-80% of Americans who identify as black have some European ancestry, and 20-25% of whites have some African ancestry, so we're a mixed country that doesn't want to admit it.

CONGRESSMAN PETRI: And even within the black community there are...I lived in Africa for a while in the Peace Corps, and there are huge differences -- just like in Europe -- between different regions and also in the American black community between people who come in from the Caribbean or from Africa and people who were here earlier.

IV: Let's recap the status of the bill now.

CONGRESSMAN PETRI: There's in fact a hearing this morning that started at 9:30. I'll be testifying at 11:30. It's the Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology of the Government Operations Committee. My understanding is that they may have another hearing next month as well.

IV: What can Interracial Voice and its readers do to assist you and H.R. 830?

CONGRESSMAN PETRI:They can contact their Senators and Representatives and ask their Representatives to co-sponsor the bill. They can ask their Senators to introduce companion legislation in the Senate. They or you can contact either me, and I can forward it to the subcommittee directly, to seek to testify or to put a statement in the record supporting the legislation.

IV: How can people contact you?

CONGRESSMAN PETRI: My email address is or they can write to me at 2262 Rayburn House Office Bldg., Washington, D.C. 20515. The general phone # here is 202-225-2476. I also have a website at

The testimony given today will also be included on my website.

IV: Great. That way our readers can easily access it. Congressman Petri, it has been a pleasure. Thank you.

CONGRESSMAN PETRI: Thank you, Charles.


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