The senators were perplexed. The staff, often a fount of wisdom on many things, had no answers. Whereupon the chairman, Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), turned to the audience in the big hearing room and called for help.
A hand went up in the back and a man unknown to the subcommittee stood. He said he was from Ohio, adroitly answered the question and then sat down. Senators joshed about hiring the visitor, then resumed deliberations.
Other days, bereft of answers, the senators have turned to other visitors for help: Charles O. Sethness, the assistant secretary of the Treasury; the man from the Office of Management and Budget; the men from the Agriculture Department; the lawyer from the Farm Credit System (FCS); the woman from the Farm Credit Administration; the lobbyist from the American Bankers Association.
The farmers whose financial troubles are the object of these deliberations are absent from the room and not heard from as the Senate Agriculture subcommittee has plodded along for weeks on a bill to provide federal aid to the troubled FCS.
Even the man from Ohio, finally identified as Columbus lawyer John Diehl, has been summoned back to the microphones to help senators over the hard spots.
"It's kind of strange," said a longtime staffer. "It's been sort of a populist markup. I've never been involved where there has been such audience participation. But Boren has done a heck of a job holding the thing together."
Confronted by major budget problems and an administration that has objected to a number of the bailout provisions, Boren has stressed at every turn his desire to find consensus -- with no clear hint that the White House will accept his final product.
Not that all has been smooth. Some farmer representatives and lobbyists from farm-advocacy groups are angry about the subcommittee's failure to move faster and about closed-door meetings in which major credit decisions have been made.
Most of the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) section has been confected in "informal" meetings convened by Boren with the public absent. After FmHA operatives complained about her presence at the first such session, St. Paul public-interest lawyer Lynn Hayes was excluded from later meetings.
"Boren is trying to be a judge rather than a chairman," said Keith Stroup of the League of Rural Voters, one of the grass-roots advocacy groups. "Senate rules preclude closed meetings unless there are extraordinary circumstances, which these are not."
The unhappiness over secrecy surfaced last week during the open portion of the markup when Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and John Melcher (D-Mont.) wanted to bring up FmHA amendments. Panel members chided them for disrupting agreements made privately.
Harkin, particularly, was angry. "There's not one iota on the record of what we've done on FmHA. It's all been off the record in closed session."
"We spent hours and hours and hours negotiating the FmHA thing," Boren said. "All I want is for us to reach an agreement and have a product . . . . If we get into controversy, we won't have a bill."
In contrast to the dispatch with which the House Agriculture Committee produced an FCS rescue package, the Senate has been stymied by glitches that for several weeks have delayed adoption of the bill.
A presumably final session last Friday was canceled. Another presumably final session set for yesterday was canceled and rescheduled for Friday as the staff continued a review of fine print in the measure.
Among the unhappy is David Senter, director of the American Agriculture Movement. "It's a tainted process," he said, "when they have free and open debate on every piece of the bill, then go into the closed-door process with FmHA matters . . . . Members want it closed for political reasons. We want up or down votes in public."