Looking for Trouble
In a day’s work, our Congressman collides with Howard Dean and Michael Moore.
Thursday, March 11, 2004
WASHINGTON, DC—“Zoe! Zoe!” Rep. Sam Farr hails loudly to a three-person procession striding through an anteroom just off the floor of the US House of Representatives. The three stop in place.
The congressman from Carmel springs from his seat and bounds over to Zoe, that is, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from San Jose.
When Farr intercepts her, Lofgren happens to be escorting the rabble-rousing former governor of Vermont, Dr. Howard Dean, formerly of the 2004 presidential campaign. Dean, who was supported by Lofgren, politely greets Farr and his guests, grinning that tight-jawed grin before wheeling around and moving on.
Farr has been sitting in this anteroom, called the Rayburn Room, alternately on the front and in the back of his seat, speaking with a student named Roni Asmus, from Monterey’s Santa Catalina School.
A junior from Aptos, Asmus is in Washington, DC for a youth leadership conference. She tells Farr she is blown away by the Capitol, a place where her history and civics textbooks come to life. And Farr is happy sit with Asmus while his scheduler, Tom Tucker, stands by and keeps an eye on the clock.
Farr has just come off the House floor. At the beginning of each session, time is set aside for members to make one-minute speeches on a topic of their choice. Rahm Emanuel, a former Clinton political strategist and now a congressman from Illinois, used his minute to scold Republican-flavored lobbyists who’d made the newspaper that morning for various alleged improprieties.
The speeches, though on the record, are usually made to an empty chamber and the only people who ever see them are devotees of C-Span.
Since it’s National Peace Corps Week, Farr had made a quick address about his beloved corps, in which he served during the 1960s in Colombia. He brings this fact up in many public addresses, as he did last week:
“I would like to also remind [Peace Corps volunteers] that what we heard yesterday in testimony by the leading generals in Iraq was that the military understands that until we cross the cultural divide, until the United States crosses the cultural divide, we will not have peace in this world. And the people that are being able to cross that cultural divide and bring the best of what is in America to the best of what is outside America together is the National Peace Corps.”
The Lettuce King
Earlier in the morning, Farr took his seat on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture for a hearing. Senior leadership of the Department of Agriculture had been called to testify. This is the time of year when Congress holds a wide spectrum of hearings—they call in government regulators for grillings and inquisitions to remind bureaucrats that their agencies are being watched.
During the morning exchange, the topic of invasive species and animal inspections for BSE, or Mad Cow disease, dominated the questioning. Evasive answers from the department panel angered several members of Congress, who wanted to know if the service had the authority to inspect individual animals for Mad Cow, since a case was recently reported.
The regulators would not say they did not have the authority to inspect for sick animals, since the inspection program is voluntary on the part of producers. Instead, the regulators said the matter is up to “the marketplace.”
When the regulators could not clearly articulate what that meant, the congressional interrogators got testy. One member of the committee, Rep. Maurice Hinchey, a Democrat from upstate New York, threw a sarcastic barb at the bureaucrats’ regulator-speak, saying, “We’re having a lot of fun with language here today.”
But Farr, who of course comes from a geographic salad bowl, wanted to know what the department has done about ensuring efficient regulation of organic lettuce.
Farr told the panel that according to his sources in the industry, there was a significant backlog in the approval of organic products under the provisions of the Organic Food Protection Act. He wants to be able to get lettuce from the Salinas Valley into foreign markets like Japan, which have different inspection regulations.
“This is not a subsidized market. It’s all free enterprise. This is the cutting edge,” he said. “This is our future in agriculture.”
While his colleagues hectored the panel about poisonous sirloin, Farr pushed for work on bring organic food into school cafeterias.
“I’m very interested in using our purchasing power to put our money where our mouth is,” he said. “And if we want [schoolchildren] to eat better food we have to give them healthy food.”
A Political Animal
Farr spends just about every weekend on the Central Coast—“in the district,” as Congress members call their hometowns. As a former county supervisor, he’d been watching local political races. He’d watched his old seat carefully, the one held by Dave Potter. Although local races are non-partisan, he sees a threat to his party’s place in local politics from a heavily funded and efficient GOP.
“The politics of the area are still predominantly Democratic, but the foundation is being laid very well by the Republicans while the Democrats are disorganized and under-funded.”
After lunch, in one of the congressional dining rooms with Asmus and Brian Congleton, head of the Monterey Bay chapter of the American Institute of Architects, Farr heads back to his office in the Longworth Building for an appointment with a representative of the US Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps wants to talk to him about plans to build levees in the Pajaro River and the San Lorenzo River.
But for whatever reason that day, Farr is a magnet for troublemakers.
Walking up Independence Avenue, it is pointed out to Farr that the querulous filmmaker Michael Moore is standing on the next corner with a camera crew and a microphone.
Farr barrels across First Street and right into Moore’s sour mug. “How’s my hero?!” Farr asks.
Moore, with his typical hunched-down head and glum expression, tells Farr, “We’re not looking for guys like you, if you get my drift.”
(Moore is making his new film called Fahrenheit 9-11. Although a producer on the scene would not divulge details about the Capitol Hill shoot, it seemed Moore was ambushing congressmen and senators who’d voted for the Iraq War, so he could ask if they’d like their own children to participate. Farr has steadily opposed the war.)
Ignoring the invitation to scram, Farr lays it on thick for the camera. He runs the show for a few minutes and introduces himself to a Marine that Moore has with him.
Farr walks away from Moore unscathed. In fact, he is beaming. He says he’d just as soon have gone into filmmaking as a young man if he’d known about it. Instead, the closest he got was recording his journeys as a Peace Corps volunteer on an unwieldy, ‘60s-era tape deck powered by eight D-cell batteries.
Talking to Moore has triggered a thought in Farr, which he shares: in fact he needs Moore and Moore needs him, and the reporter that Farr is walking with needs Farr for his story, and Farr needs his story told, otherwise, who’s gonna know?
“We’re all dependent on each other,” Farr says as he walks into his office, late, telling his guest from the Army Corps of Engineers that he’s got half a minute to talk.