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ROLL CALL / 103RD CONGRESS : Voting Attendance Is So High That 90% Ranks Near Bottom

September 05, 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%.

Although the 113 members of the reform-minded House freshmen class averaged 96.6% attendance, two of them were notable for their low scores. Rep. Walter R. Tucker III (D-Compton) ranked 13th from the bottom at 84% and had the lowest attendance of the California delegation. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) ranked 33rd at 89%.

Tucker said an 84% attendance record is "pretty doggone good," and "the overwhelming majority of votes I missed were journal votes, votes that are basically like approving the minutes (of a meeting) . . . . I can count on one hand the substantive votes I've missed."

Tucker, just back from an extended trip to Taiwan with his chief of staff, explained that he had been busy meeting constituents, corporate heads and others.

"If they had a chart for who was the most accessible congressman and who made themselves available for people, I would be at the top of the list," Tucker said. "I will try to do better. I am more conscious about it now, but I don't think the stats CQaccurately reflect how hard I am working."

"All my votes that I missed was due to the birth of my baby," said Becerra, who took off a week around May 1 when his first child, Clarisa Isabel Reyes-Becerra, was born. He also took a few days off last month in July when his baby took ill, he said.

Becerra said he splits his week between Washington, D.C., and his district in Los Angeles. "A lot of votes occurred during that time. If it weren't for that, my voting record would be above average."

The overall attendance record for Congress 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.

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