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AWOL on Hill: Fundraising trumps voting

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Voting on bills and resolutions is a member of Congress' most basic duty, but only 10 of its current 535 lawmakers represented their constituents on every vote last session.

At times, members appeared to think that ballooning their campaign bank accounts was a surer way to re-election than legislative participation: The Washington Times found nearly 800 cases in which members of Congress missed votes on days they were scheduled to attend political fundraisers, including 75 cases in which the lawmaker was far from Washington.

Rep. Jackie Speier, California Democrat, missed 11 percent of votes last Congress, spread throughout the term. A member of the Homeland Security Committee, she hosted a "San Francisco Treat" campaign fundraiser at which donors dined on $1,000-a-plate crab and Ghirardelli chocolates on June 14, 2011, a day the House was taking up military and veterans issues. In so doing, she missed three votes.

On Sept. 10, weeks before Superstorm Sandy washed away the possessions of many New Yorkers, the House was discussing flood insurance, but Rep. Martin Heinrich, New Mexico Democrat, running for the Senate, was absent. He was in New York for another reason, records suggest: At 6:30 p.m., a "champagne reception" was held in his honor in a Fifth Avenue apartment, with a $10,000 suggested contribution. Mr. Heinrich won his Senate bid.

"If you have to choose between voting to represent your constituents or fundraising for re-election, you'd think you'd choose voting. It's the most fundamental thing they have to do in Congress. It shows the priority of money in politics above all things, even the most basic duties," John Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation said.

Whether because they were too busy campaigning, because they just never made it from their offices down the hallway to the floor or because of old age, 28 lawmakers missed more than 1 in 10 votes in the last Congress. The list of members missing at least 10 percent of votes contains 17 Democrats and 11 Republicans.

Five of the 435 House members, each of them Republican and most relative newcomers, were present for all of the House's 1,600 votes last Congress. Five senators, four of them Republican, made all Senate votes.

Rep. Justin Amash, Michigan Republican, at 32 personifies the five current House members who never missed a vote, largely a crop of new lawmakers fresh with enthusiasm for the job.

"Representing my constituents means showing up for work every day and never missing a vote. But a perfect vote record isn't sufficient: The people I represent expect me to review every bill carefully and to explain every vote I take," he said.

On the other end of the spectrum, 12 members, including Rep. W. Todd Akin, Missouri Republican; Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat; and Rep. Dennis A. Cardoza, California Democrat, missed more than 17 percent of all votes.

The Times compared voting records for the 112th Congress with the Sunlight Foundation's Political Party Time, a database of fundraising event invitations obtained from lobbyists and others.

Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, missed more than 12 percent of the House's votes last Congress, the fifth-most among current representatives. Eight of those votes were held during days he was scheduled to attend four political fundraisers.

Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr., Georgia Democrat, missed more than 4 percent of votes in the House in the last Congress, including 19 on three days when he was scheduled to attend fundraisers. On July 22, 2011, the day the House was voting on the legislative branch's appropriations budget, Mr. Sanford was on the Stonebridge Golf Course in Georgia at a fundraiser for his campaign.

Rep. Rick Berg, North Dakota Republican, missed 38 votes last session, but the power of money to draw him away from business he otherwise prioritized seemed clear: Half of those votes were held during days he was scheduled to attend six fundraisers.

Retirement age

With incumbent legislators all but assured re-election for as long as they wish to stay, many members of Congress are well past the age where most Americans retire, and in many cases, it shows in the form of missed votes attributed to recurring health problems.

Mr. Rangel missed 18 percent of the House's votes last Congress.

"Congressman Rangel was hospitalized twice in the first couple months of 2012. Under doctor's orders, he had to spend a lot of time recuperating at home. Since 1971, the congressman has cast well more than 23,000 votes," spokesman Hannah Kim said by email. "Last Congress was an anomaly due to an infection that he contracted in his back."

According to press accounts, he has also missed votes while in his district conducting events such as career fairs.

Rep. Louise McIntosh Slaughter is a spry New York Democrat born in 1929 who in person appears decades younger than she is. But when she broke a foot, it caused more problems than it might have for a younger person, and she missed 21 percent of all votes.

But infirmity may not have been the only thing keeping Mrs. Slaughter from her duties.

She also missed 12 votes on four days she was scheduled to attend fundraisers.

On June 1, 2011, she was raising money for her campaign at the Credit Union House. On May 16, 2011, the day colleagues were taking up the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, the lawmaker may have been steps away at a fundraising dinner at the Washington Court Hotel on Capitol Hill.

(That a lawmaker was advertised as appearing at a fundraiser does not guarantee that he or she actually attended. A spokesman for Mrs. Slaughter did not respond to a question on whether her injury also forced her to back out of those fundraisers.)

Other priorities

A few members even appeared to lose interest in the job, missing many votes and ultimately resigning. Rep. Dennis Cardoza, California Democrat, missed 19 percent of votes during his time in Congress in 2011 and 2012 before he cashed in his chips altogether, resigning in August with one day's notice. In July, he had begun negotiating a job offer with a Washington lobbying and law firm, which he accepted.

A fellow California Democrat, Jane Harman, missed nearly 40 percent of votes in the beginning of 2011, after she won re-election, only to announce she would be leaving Congress a few weeks into the new term to take a job at a think tank.

Yet another California Democrat, Rep. Bob Filner, missed nearly a third of the House's votes last Congress, leaving his Southern California constituents voiceless while he was campaigning successfully for mayor of San Diego.

For some members, doing the job they were elected to do took a back seat to campaigning for higher office, even if they had little chance of winning.

Now-retired Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican, abandoned his House post to pursue a long-shot bid at the presidency, missing an average of 40 percent of votes each month. Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minnesota Republican, was in the same boat, missing 23 percent, the most of any House member of who was re-elected.

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., Illinois Democrat, was re-elected despite a nonexistent campaign but resigned shortly after Election Day as criminal charges loomed. He missed an average of 27 percent of votes monthly, some of that owing to taking a medical leave of absence beginning in June to address mental health issues.

But time in office was also a strong predictor of a diminishing ability to keep up with a demanding job, with the median lawmaker first elected in a particular decade missing more votes than his newer peers.

The 31 lawmakers who have been in office since at least 1975 missed three times more votes on average than the 105 first elected in 2010.

But one veteran lawmaker, even as he plays an important role in crafting legislation in powerful committees, still makes a point to make it to the floor to vote on routine matters, setting an example for younger colleagues.

Rep. Sander Levin, Michigan Democrat, the ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, was born in 1931 and first elected in 1982, missed two of 1,606 votes last Congress.

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