Every 15 minutes of a senator’s waking life in Washington is fully scheduled with meetings, hearings and votes, and much of the rest is devoted to a frantic search for money to fuel the next campaign. “Of any free time you have, I would say 50 percent, maybe even more,” is spent on fund-raising, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa told the New Yorker recently in a scathing portrait of an overstressed and utterly ineffective legislative body, one that measures acts of real significance in the single digits per term.
So it was refreshing to hear how Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat of Montana, is spending his summer vacation. While other senators drove the campaign trail, dialed for dollars or lounged on a beach somewhere, Mr. Tester went home to his farm and harvested wheat.
The senator is the third generation of his family to operate an 1,800-acre farm near Big Sandy, Mont., where the Testers grow organic spring and winter wheat. He is spending the first week of his vacation in his combine, trying to gather the wheat before the sawflies get to it. “It brings me back to reality,” he told a local station, KFBB-TV, this week. “The combine doesn’t care if you’re a senator or not. It breaks down whenever it wants to break down.”
Congress used to be dominated by farmers, and it is unfortunate that Mr. Tester and Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa are the only ones left in the Senate who still actively work the fields. If more members had a life outside of campaigning and lawmaking, it might help put petty political disputes in a little perspective. Sit high up in the cab of a combine, stare out at an endless vista of swaying grain, worry about wheat futures and drought — your opponent a leaf-eating insect — and, suddenly, it should seem a little ridiculous to block an important piece of legislation back in Washington just because it would give the other party a victory.
Some nostalgics maintain the Senate was more functional in the days when many of its farmer-members used the spring and summer recesses to plant and harvest. That may be a myth, but it is good to know at least one senator is still firmly earthbound.