WASHINGTON,Jan. 24 – Former North Dakota Gov. Edward T. Schafer,President Bush's nominee for agriculture secretary,testified during a U.S. Senate committee hearing that began with all the customary formalities.
The crowd fell silent as the chairman banged a gavel and recited a prepared opening statement.
And then the senior Republican on the committee pulled out a small bag of peanuts.
“Ya'll don't grow many of these in North Dakota,” Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia said to Schafer with a laugh.
“And I hope you don't start growing any of these in North Dakota,” he said sarcastically,his voice trailing off with a long list of crops the state already produces.
While Schafer faced perhaps the most serious job interview of his career,members of the Committee on Agriculture,Nutrition and Forestry and even the nominee himself managed to punctuate more than two hours of jargon-steeped agriculture talk with tidbits of humor.
During his testimony,Schafer cited the influence of his parents and grandparents,including his maternal grandfather,a shipbuilder from Denmark who moved to North Dakota to start a farm. Schafer said his grandfather didn't live to see him elected governor. “Probably wouldn't have believed it,either,” he said.
As he fielded senators' questions – the lion's share of which focused on issues related to the new Farm Bill – Schafer maintained a formal tone that emphasized his serious concerns about agriculture.
“I grew up with farmers as neighbors,” Schafer said,explaining that his goal is to bridge the gap between policymakers and farmers and to ensure that those neighbors understand that the government considers their interests.
Sen. Tom Harkin,D-Iowa,the committee chairman,said Schafer could face a challenge in entering the Bush administration in the middle of debate about the Farm Bill,and in having only about a year to create change.
The North Dakota senators asked that Schafer's hearing be moved up from its previously scheduled date because a quick Senate confirmation would allow him one opportunity to sit as part of the president's Cabinet for the State of the Union address, the final one of Bush's presidency.
The senators raised concerns about alternative fuels,the search for new revenue to fund the Farm Bill and protection of their own states' agricultural production. Schafer vowed that he would encourage a Farm Bill that included crop insurance,disaster coverage and direct payments for farmers.
Chambliss elicited another round of laughter as he questioned Schafer about his commitment to ensure accurate pricing of cotton. Schafer began his response by noting how nice his own white cotton shirt had looked in the mirror earlier in the day.
“When you get home tonight,check that label to make sure that's U.S. cotton,” Chambliss said.
Later,when a brief debate about the temperature in the Dakotas erupted before Schafer's testimony,Sen. John R. Thune,R- S.D.,joked: “Once again,Congress is trying to manipulate the numbers.”
Schafer's home team – North Dakota Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan and Rep. Earl Pomeroy,all Democrats – also kept the humor alive.
As he introduced the two-term governor,Conrad told fellow committee members that he considered Schafer to be family and then asked his colleagues “not to hold it against me.”
Showing his support for the nominee,Dorgan told the committee he had only known Schafer to back down from one challenge in his life,when Minnesota voters elected former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura as governor and began wearing T-shirts with the slogan,”My governor can beat up your governor.”
Schafer seemed understandably nervous,Dorgan said,when some North Dakotans made shirts that read,”Our governor says prove it.”
Minutes later,Pomeroy elicited another round of laughter from the audience while trying to emphasize Schafer's understanding of the importance of disaster assistance. “We call him the disaster governor,” he said,”not because he was a disaster,but because during those eight years,North Dakota seemed to having nothing but.”