Thursday, Aug. 1, was the day that the Senate Agriculture Committee had scheduled to mark up a disaster assistance bill prior to its month-long August recess.
Senate members, from both parties, showed up expecting to complete work on a bill and vote it out of the committee. Instead, senators found themselves at a business meeting of the committee, with an agenda to "discuss" the need for assistance and to vote on an Iowa nominee to the Bush Administration.
Several senators, including Sens. Max Baucus and Pat Roberts, had introduced disaster assistance bills for 2001 and 2002 prior to this meeting. Several sources reported that a number of senators also had brought various amendments to modify the chairman's mark-up, except there was no bill to mark up. After informing the committee members of the agenda change and giving his opening remarks, Chairman Tom Harkin allowed his colleagues to comment on the current drought and the need for disaster assistance. After listening to these statements, which provided a near-unanimous consensus that a disaster bill should be quickly considered by the committee, Chairman Harkin switched gears and began discussing the nominee to be undersecretary for rural development, at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Thomas Dorr of Iowa.
According to those present, as the chairman started his opening statement regarding the Dorr nomination, several members, visibly agitated, frustrated and perhaps upset that a disaster bill would not be marked up, left the committee's proceedings. Others waited around patiently to vote on the nomination before the Senate gathered for a morning roll call vote on the Andean trade bill. Thirty minutes into the chairman's opening statement, the signal came that a roll call vote had started on the Senate floor.
Undeterred, Chairman Harkin continued his often accusatory statement regarding his fellow Iowan's qualifications for a position with the USDA, even as most senators had left to vote. Eventually, the committee was recessed to vote and members were informed that the consideration of the nominee would continue following a series of floor votes. The committee's proceeding reconvened later in the morning, but a sufficient quorum was not present to vote on Dorr's nomination. The nominee and the consideration of disaster legislation were postponed--the nominee until later in the afternoon and any disaster legislation until the Senate reconvenes, in September.
As the drought of 2002 worsened in the Rockies and High Plains states and had begun to encroach into the Corn Belt, including Iowa, it may seem strange that Chairman Harkin, who is in a tough re-election campaign, optioned to forgo consideration of a disaster bill before Congress adjourned for over a month, and instead spend the last available opportunity for the committee to meet until sometime in September, on the nomination of a fellow, although controversial, Iowan.
Although this is the same chairman that held an all-day hearing on the nomination of Dorr and only half an afternoon on a hearing regarding the need for disaster assistance, it is difficult to understand how this or any chairman could ignore the momentum for disaster assistance and return home in August empty-handed.
All anyone can figure is it must have rained in Iowa.