The back Dorr

The president sneaks an appointment -- with old ties to the Bushes -- past Congress.

By Anthony York
Published August 9, 2002 11:34PM (EDT)

So just why did President George W. Bush appoint an agriculture undersecretary during the congressional recess, at a time when partisan objections could be ignored and a pesky appointment process bypassed?

The recess appointment is a loophole that presidents exploit when they want to avoid an ugly dust-up or circumvent Senate opposition to a particular nominee. And Thomas Dorr seemed headed for defeat by Democrats.

The major objections to Dorr's nomination raised during his hearings centered on IRS investigations that suggested Dorr had tinkered with his bookkeeping so he could qualify for as much as $99,000 in federal aid. (He eventually paid back $34,000 this year.) In a tersely worded letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, compared Dorr to executives at Enron, WorldCom and other companies that used "aggressive accounting" to defraud shareholders and taxpayers. In his March confirmation hearings, Dorr argued meekly that "I have known many, many farmers who have done that over the years."

That was hardly all, though. Receiving virtually no attention in the media was a letter, which Harkin's office released, that suggested Dorr has a particularly thorny attitude toward the people -- poor farmers -- he is now charged with helping.

The letter from Dorr to Harkin and other senators, dated Oct. 8, 1999, railed against increased taxes that would, in part, fund broadband access for rural communities. Dorr used the opportunity, though, to rail against rural subsidies in general.

"With these kinds of taxation and subsidy games, you collectively are responsible for turning Iowa into a state of peasants totally dependent on your largesse," said the letter. "Should you decide to take a few side trips through the Iowa countryside, you'll see an inordinate number of homes surrounded by five to ten cars. The homes generally have a value of less than $10,000. This just confirms my '10 car $10,000 home theory.' The more you try to help the more you hinder."

Agriculture committee spokesman Seth Boffeli says Dorr's "theory" shows Dorr is "somewhat insensitive toward the poor people he's supposed to be helping." But the details of Dorr's theory remain hazy, and an agriculture department spokeswoman said she could not reach Dorr to clarify what he meant.

But Dorr's nomination was already opposed by many of the people he is supposed to be helping, including small farming groups and organized labor, who argue that Dorr's vision for rural America would hurt independent farmers. Dorr, who ran a 3,000-acre corn and soybean farm that ranked among the top 4 percent of American farms, has long been unsympathetic toward the plight of family farmers who seek government subsidies to remain independent. "What he basically is suggesting is that farmers farm under contract for corporations, and be subject to whatever those corporations dictate," said Iowa farmer George Naylor, a member of the National Farm Action Campaign, an association of farm, resource conservation and rural advocacy groups. "You do as the corporation says or you hit the road."

On top of all of that, civil rights groups, including the NAACP, also registered their opposition to Dorr's nomination, for what they say were racially insensitive comments. In December 1999, Dorr implied a link between race and economic success. He pointed to three largely white counties in Iowa -- counties that in Dorr's words had been "very non-diverse in their ethnic background and their religious background" -- and suggested they had a quality that "obviously has enabled them to succeed and succeed very well."

The comments prompted the congressional black caucus to add its voice to the chorus against Dorr. In a June letter sent to Harkin's office, the caucus stated it was "shocked to learn that the proposed nominee would express the belief that ethnic diversity is an impediment to economic growth."

So why would Bush spend political capital for a measly undersecretary of agriculture, and such a controversial one, at that?

Possibly because Dorr has had a close relationship with the Bushes for a long time. Dorr supported George H.W. Bush as a GOP activist in Iowa when he first ran for president in 1980. He also helped rally support for George W. Bush in the Iowa legislature when Bush was still mulling the possibility of running for president.

Dorr was among a small group of Iowa activists who made the pilgrimage to Austin to urge W. to enter the race. Dorr described the group at the time as "just a bunch of old country boys," even though those "country boys" were escorted to Austin on corporate jets owned by major GOP fundraisers. Dorr eventually became Bush's co-finance chairman in Iowa for the 2000 campaign. And all that work, finally, appears to have paid off.

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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