The Senate had the chance Wednesday to re-examine the once-rejected Undersecretary for Rural Development nominee Tom Dorr. President Bush re-nominated Dorr who has once again had to stand before the Senate Agriculture Committee for a hearing questioning his ability to lead the agency that doles out nearly $90 billion in loans.
Dorr, of northwest Iowa, was unable to garner the needed 60 votes in the Senate in 2002, because of criticism led by Ranking Member Sen. Tom Harkin about comments he had made about racial ethnicity and issues cited about structuring his farming operations to avoid payment limitations.
He was made a recess appointee from August 2002 until December 2003. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman retained him as a senior adviser when his recess term expired and assigned him additional duties in other areas of the Department of Agriculture.
Despite the cloud of controversy that surrounded Dorr's initial nomination and recess appointment, President Bush has re-nominated him to fill the head position at USDA's Rural Development branch. Dorr greeted the Senate Agriculture Committee with a passion for the rural economy in a hearing on Wednesday.
He expressed his gratitude for his staff across the country that helped make "great progress in expanding our outreach to qualified individuals and communities, making them aware of, and assisting them with, our many USDA Rural Development programs" with a special emphasis on minority outreach, Dorr says.
"Our overriding goal during my time leading USDA Rural Development was to be the advocate for rural America, and we took that objective very seriously," Dorr adds. "I witnessed many examples of leadership and creativity from our team in working with communities, often bringing multiple funding sources together such as federal, state, non-profit and private."
And as the committee began to tackle the nomination again, it was clear that Harkin, D-Iowa, remained opposed to the nomination of his fellow statesman. Although he said he's never in all his 20 years in the Senate objected to the nomination of an Iowa native for a nominated position, he says he has a "responsibility" to inquire into the questionable matters.
Most of Harkin's questioning directed towards Dorr focused on information brought to light in the first nomination hearing. He again asked for clarification on his reasons for having to pay back to the government $34,000 in farm payments that were wrongly collected because of the relationship of Dorr's operation with the two family trusts as a custom farming operator instead of only a crop-share partner.
Harkin asked what kind of signal does the nomination and potential approval of Dorr send to farmers and ranchers who partake in the many varied programs that agriculture provides if one of the highest leadership members is not honest with the government on his own farm?
Over 10 years ago, Dorr had written a constituent letter to Harkin saying that "the more we help, the more we hinder people." When asked specifically if that's how Dorr still felt, he replied, "My passion for assisting minority communities and all others involved in rural America is clearly part of the record. To suggest that I believe 'the more we help, the more we hinder,' that's clearly not true."
Track record helps Dorr's chances
Republican senators were quick to point out that because Dorr led the agency during a recess appointment, he does have a track record to quiet the concerns raised by some organizations, as well as some groups changing their opinion of Dorr after seeing him in action.
In an introduction of Dorr at the hearing, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, shared portions of letters and statements of different groups encouraging the committee to nominate Dorr. Several letters of those letters were from minority organization leaders that initially were against Dorr's nomination. For instance, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which had a representative testify against Dorr at the 2002 hearing, endorsed the nomination because Dorr had "made several visits to the communities within the Federation's network and has a great understanding of the needs of rural poor communities. He is the man for the job," says Ralph Page, executive director of the Federation.
Dexter L. Davis, president of the Northeast Louisiana Black Farmers and Landowners Associations, said Dorr has "earned the trust from rural Americans."
Calvin R. King Sr., president and CEO of Arkansas Land and Farm Development Corporation, in a statement expressed that he was impressed with Dorr's passion for small farmers. "Quite frankly, when I first met Tom, I was not expecting him to be particularly supportive of our needs," King says. But over the years that we have worked together, I have found him to be a great ally and a tireless fighter for the causes that we both support."
Chambliss did indicate that 85 organizations, including the National Corn Growers Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation voiced support for the nomination. Chambliss did read a portion of a letter from the Black and Hispanic Caucuses that claimed Dorr had not dealt with issues written in a 2004 letter or subsequently in 2005.