Mitch McConnell's Agriculture absences raise questions

Greg Nash

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has touted his work for Kentucky farmers on the campaign trail, but back in Washington, he has a trend of skipping out on Senate Agriculture Committee hearings for events unrelated to his home state.

He’s already been hit by his Democratic opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes for missing every Agriculture Committee hearing since 2009. While it’s not uncommon for lawmakers to miss the occasional hearing — particularly members of leadership, who have varied demands that take them away from their committee duties — a review of committee hearings and McConnell’s public schedule reveals many times he’s missed hearings but has still managed to make time for media appearances or meetings on issues far removed from Kentucky’s farmers.

McConnell's team points to his work behind-the-scenes on issues that are significant to local farmers and other Kentuckians as evidence he's been effective, and while spokesman John Ashbrook didn't dispute the absences, he argued McConnell “uses his clout as Leader to help Kentucky farmers in ways that go well beyond committee Q & A.”

He touted, as an example, McConnell’s work on the hemp amendment, which he said "open[ed] up new opportunities for Kentucky agriculture jobs."

“And the year before [that] he used his position to secure a one year extension of farm programs protecting Kentucky families from a huge spike in milk prices and providing certainty for Kentucky farmers ahead of a new planting season," Ashbrook added in an email to The Hill. "That same year he also won a permanent reduction of the death tax."

ADVERTISEMENT
But the details are sure to draw scrutiny as Grimes and McConnell face off at the Kentucky Farm Bureau forum on Wednesday.

On Dec. 1, 2011, McConnell missed a committee hearing addressing “Continued Oversight of the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act,” at which a number of his Republican colleagues spoke and asked questions of the chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

That day, however, he did find time to appear on conservative commentator Sean Hannity’s talk show to criticize President Obama and Senate Democrats on issues ranging from passage of the Keystone XL oil pipeline to government spending.

On June 23 of that year, McConnell was absent from a hearing on “Eliminating Waste in the Farm Bill,” where agricultural industry and administration representatives took questions from senators about a bill that routinely draws criticism from conservatives, who see the price tag as too large and its government subsidies mismanaged.

Presumably that day, the Senate minority leader was in talks with other congressional leaders over a deal to raise the debt limit, but he also made time to speak on the Senate floor in the morning and appear on Fox News at night to criticize what he said was Obama’s lack of leadership on the debt-limit negotiations.

Job creation and Kentucky’s struggling economy have become a central focus of the Senate debate there, with Grimes pledging to make it her main responsibility if elected and attacking McConnell for reportedly dismissing local economic development as “not my job.”

McConnell’s campaign has touted his work to secure funding for local projects and industries, like his successful effort to pass an amendment to the farm bill boosting hemp production in the state, to push back on the Democratic attacks.

But the senator missed a hearing in February of 2012 on just that topic — “Energy and Economic Growth for Rural America” — during which other senators on the committee, from both parties, questioned Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and others about bloat and job-creating programs in the bill, among other things.

That day, McConnell and other congressional leaders met with then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, during which, according to the Chinese Embassy, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and McConnell “spoke highly of China's great achievements, and added that the relationship between the two heavyweight countries not only influences their own development but concerns the future of the world.”

And on March 6 of this year, McConnell skipped confirmation hearings for three of the president’s nominees for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission — though he played a role, as he originally recommended Chris Giancarlo for commissioner — in favor of a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference just outside Washington, D.C.

McConnell was one of the first speakers in the three-daylong confab, brandishing a rifle and drawing a response from the conservative crowd.

The absences, and McConnell's alternate activities, could feed into Democratic attempts to paint him as a creature of Washington more interested in his own political future than that of Kentucky.

While the senator is considered Republicans' most vulnerable incumbent this cycle, he's still favored to retain his seat, and a handful of recent polls have shown him reestablishing a small but solid lead over Grimes. 

— This piece has been updated.