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ROLL CALL / 103RD CONGRESS

Voting Attendance Is So High That 90% Ranks Near Bottom

September 02, 1993|RICHARD G. THOMAS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — Halfway through its first year, the 103rd Congress has put up big numbers in a key area other than the deficit and campaign fund-raising.

Lawmakers are climbing almost off the charts in voting attendance. House members showed up to vote at a nearly 96% clip through July 2, and senators scored above 97%, according to a tally by Roll Call Report Syndicate.

Fifty-three of the 540 members of Congress, including delegates, registered perfect attendance, and only 41 scored below 90%.

These numbers continue an upswing that began in the early 1980s after decades of marked absenteeism. But reviews are mixed on whether higher attendance is indicative of better legislative performance.

Michael Shannon, president of Mandate-Campaign Media, said, "What the electorate has to ask now is what Henry David Thoreau said: 'The question is not are we busy, but what are we busy about?' "

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), who had the Senate's lowest mark, said striving for perfect attendance "is a matter of great personal pride" for some lawmakers. "But in my case, representing the state of Hawaii, if I maintain a 100% record I would never get home."

An aide to Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who ranked near the bottom in the House, said he regards many floor votes as meaningless and thinks he can serve more effectively by remaining in his district or conducting a hearing as chairman of the Government Operations Committee.

While some capital insiders view voting attendance as a superficial measurement, the standing rules of the House and Senate take it seriously enough to require members to be present and voting unless officially excused. An unenforced 1856 law docks a day's pay for each day missed without permission.

Most lawmakers regard showing up to vote as a political necessity, for, like bounced checks and extravagant haircuts, absenteeism is a human-scale error easily grasped and quickly denounced by constituents.

"It's Campaign 101," said consultant John Gauthier of Mike Murphy Media Inc. "If you have a member who's missing a lot of votes, constituents have a right to ask, 'He's getting this big salary, so why isn't he doing his job?' which is to vote. And the other question is, 'Where is the guy if he's missing all those votes?' "

Conventional wisdom has long regarded 90% or higher as acceptable attendance from a public relations standpoint.

But members of Congress in recent years have raised the crossbar on themselves. To have scored 90% in the House during the first six months of this year was to rank 35th from the bottom. Scoring even 95% put a member in the lowest third.

The Roll Call Report Syndicate survey found that representatives averaged 95.9% attendance at the House's 309 record votes during the first half of 1993, while senators averaged 97.2% at 192 roll calls. The median House score was about 97%, putting lawmakers with 96% or less in the bottom half among peers. The 52-member California House delegation averaged 94.8% attendance, ranking it 40th among the 50 states.

Rep. Paul B. Henry (R-Mich.) was gravely ill and cast his only vote of the year on the first day of the session. He died July 31 of brain cancer.

The next lowest House mark was 52% by Rep. Harold E. Ford (D-Tenn.). Most of his misses occurred while he stood trial in Tennessee on political corruption charges of which he was acquitted.

Rep. Jamie L. Whitten (D-Miss.) ranked next to Ford at 72%. Texas Republicans Joe L. Barton and Jack Fields campaigned at length this year for the U.S. Senate and registered 73% each. Other lowest-scoring representatives were Conyers and Rep. Joseph M. McDade (R-Pa.), both at 75%.

Four from California had perfect 100% attendance records: Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Glendale), Rep. Jay C. Kim (R-Diamond Bar), Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego) and Sen. Barbara Boxer. California's other Democratic senator, Dianne Feinstein, had 99% attendance.

Moorhead's administrative assistant, Maxine Dean, said her boss "is very conscientious about his job. He thinks people sent him here to vote (on their behalf). These votes set the policies. He feels they are very important . . . He has delayed his trips to the district a number of times when the voting went on late."

Kim said: "I take my responsibilities as congressman for the 41st District very seriously. While many new members of Congress may talk about the need to change and reform government, actions speak louder than words.

"Real action can only happen through the voting process. As we saw with the recent amendment on terminating the space station, one vote can make the difference. My vote was crucial in the 216-215 defeat of this anti-California jobs amendment.

"I'm proud of my 100% voting record and I intend to continue providing the best service I can to my constituents and my country."

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