By Niels Lesniewski, CQ Roll Call
WASHINGTON — The worst-kept secret on Capitol Hill? Senators miss committee hearings and meetings. All the time.
Unless the senator wields the gavel, he or she may only show up for five minutes, or when it is their turn to ask questions. The results include guffaw-inducing scenes where even senior lawmakers enter the wrong hearing room, misidentify a witness and question the wrong person on the other side of the dais.
But out on the campaign trail, a less-than-stellar attendance record has become the political ammo in a number of Senate races, with criticism of incumbent lawmakers flying in Alaska, Kentucky, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Colorado and Iowa.
This cycle, much of the fodder has come from committee attendance records, at least compared to floor votes. It might look bad back home, but consistent committee attendance defies a reality on Capitol Hill.
“It might make for a compelling campaign ad to whack an incumbent for missing a committee hearing or markup, but the truth is that most legislating gets done outside of the hearing room,” one former Senate committee aide said in an email. “Obviously, it’s impossible for any senator to attend every meeting of the committees to which they belong, which is why staffers exist: to cover the hearing or ensure that the member can vote by proxy.”
After a Tuesday evening debate, Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) conceded she had missed a delayed hearing for a fundraiser. Hagan faces state Speaker Thom Tillis, a Republican, in one of the most competitive races of the cycle.
“There was one, and what had happened at that hearing is that it was scheduled earlier in the day. Votes were scheduled and that hearing had to be postponed to later that day,” Hagan told reporters, according to a video clip of the news conference. “So yes, I did miss that one.”
Hagan’s campaign noted she also turned the attack back on Tillis, pointing to the Charlotte Observer editorial board’s criticism from last year in which they called for him to step aside from the legislature.
Politifact, in responding to an ad against Hagan, went through the public records of the Armed Services open hearings to tabulate attendance, finding a number of senators present less than half the time. The website noted the difficulty getting an accurate read because of the large number of closed meetings.
In the New Hampshire Senate race, former Sen. Scott P. Brown (R-MA) launched a new round of ads against Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) this week, pointing out in a new ad that she missed a hearing about the Islamic State, which is also known by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL.
“As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, she skipped a key hearing, where a top official gave an early warning about a new terrorist group known as ISIS,” says an announcer in the Brown campaign spot.
Shaheen’s campaign looked back at Brown’s own tenure in the Senate when he represented the neighbor state to the south, and they found numerous incidents of missed immigration and border policy hearings. Brown served on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee during his Senate tenure.
“The fact is that it was Scott Brown who missed every single one of his border security hearings while in the Senate, despite now campaigning on securing the border as a cornerstone of his campaign,” Shaheen campaign spokesman Harrell Kirstein said. “Jeanne Shaheen has participated in 16 hearings, briefings, classified meetings on ISIL and terrorist threats from Iraq and Syria, dating back to before Scott Brown even moved to New Hampshire.”
A new ad from GOP Rep. Cory Gardner, who is challenging Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO), claims the senator has been absent from public emerging-threat hearings at the Armed Services panel. Those records can be derived, but they aren’t kept by the committee itself, a committee aide said.
“The Senate Armed Services Committee does not keep an attendance record. However, committee transcripts list the senators that attended each hearing, so it would be possible to compile such records by searching the hearing transcripts,” the aide said.
Rep. Bruce Braley, the Democrat running for the Iowa seat being vacated retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, has faced criticism for attendance at the Oversight and Government Reform, and Veterans Affairs Committees.
In Kentucky, the campaign of Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat, took aim at Minority Leader Mitch McConnell over his attendance at the Senate Agriculture Committee during the drafting of the most recent farm bill and at other meetings on appropriations bills.
“First we learn Mitch McConnell skipped hundreds of committee meetings. Where was he? He didn’t show up to vote on troop funding, the farm bill and the VA … on days he found time for a lobbyist fundraiser and was on two TV shows,” one such Grimes ad said.
The McConnell operation rebutted those attacks, pointing to McConnell’s role as leader, which included appointment of Republican conferees that negotiated the final farm bill deal.
“More times than not, a low attendance record isn’t nearly as bad as it is made out to be,” said Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Government Affairs Institute, who studies congressional operations.
Huder noted that in an average senator’s schedule, there may be 12 to 15 assignments at the subcommittee level alone, and that’s not including any other responsibilities of the job.
“Having a competent staff makes up for the lack of time and overlapping responsibilities. They are legislative equivalent of a central nervous system. They attend hearings the member cannot, research the issues, often know the issue and background better than the member themselves, and can fill in the workload gaps,” Huder said. “Frankly, having a good staff is far more important than showing up to a hearing.”
Staffers, of course, do most of the grunt work on major legislation too.
Photo: Mark Udall via Flickr