How would you like a job that pays $169,300 annually, includes outstanding health care and retirement benefits, two offices and a staff, and here is the best part, you don’t even have to show up for work. In fact, you can spend your time working on trying to get a better job. This dream job is that of a United States Senator.
Every election season while the Senate is in session, many incumbent Senators are absent from the Senate Chamber as the Senate debates and votes on issues which have a direct impact upon their constituents. These Senators can be seen barnstorming the country, raising money and courting voters as they run for President. Since 1960, 50 sitting U.S. Senators have sought the presidency.
Believe it or not, not so long ago there was a statute on the books, “Title 2, Section 39” which prevented this inappropriate practice. The statute is quoted below:
“The Secretary of the Senate and the Sergeant-at-Arms of the House, respectively, shall deduct from the monthly payments of each member the amount of his salary for each day that he has been absent from the Senate or House, respectively, unless such member assigns as the reason for such absence the sickness of himself or of some member of his family.”
The measure was passed in 1856, but has never been enforced. In 2005, after being on the books for nearly 150 years, the Senate exempted itself from this law. Interestingly, the act still applies to the U.S. House of Representative, but again, it has never been enforced. So the next time you see your Congressman seeking higher office while the House is in session, ask him or her if they think they deserve to be paid while devoting most of their time and effort campaigning for another job.
The most absent Senator in recent times was Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. Kerry missed 72 percent of the Senate votes during his presidential run in the 2003-2004 Congressional session. Essentially, Massachusetts spent two years represented by a “very” part-time Senator.
But the citizens of Massachusetts have become accustomed to having part-time politicians. In 2006, then Governor Mitt Romney spent 220 days out-of-state, mostly on campaign business. Sometimes Massachusetts politicians even forget they have a day job at all. In 1987 Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis began a statement by saying, “If I were a sitting governor today. . . .” Well, at the time he made this statement he was in fact a sitting governor!
The greatest show of arrogance however came from John Kerry’s vice-presidential running-mate, part-time North Carolina Senator John Edwards. In his bid to become Senator, Edwards eked out a four-point victory over an incumbent Republican, promising North Carolinians that he would be “a fierce, passionate voice on the floor of the United States Senate.” Just four years into his six-year Senate term Edwards began a run for the Presidency, and later became a vice-presidential candidate. During that time he missed 42 percent of Senate votes, earning him the unfortunate moniker: “Senator Gone”
Independent-Democrat Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut won his Senate seat in 1988 partly by blaming his opponent, then Republican Senator Lowell Weicker for having “ . . . one of the worst attendance records in the United States Senate.” Lieberman added, ''He's missed votes that could have really helped middle-class taxpayers, could have helped clean up our environment, could have protected jobs.'' Weicker’s attendance rate was actually 90 percent. Ironically, in his presidential run in 2003-2004, Lieberman missed 39 percent of Senate Votes.
Calling for Government reform, New York Senator Hillary Clinton advocates the need to return to transparency and a system of checks and balances, and governmental oversight and accountability. However, Senator Clinton has become so transparent that some would say she is close to “invisible,” having already missed 27 percent of her Senate votes during the current session. If Congress is to perform that role of oversight and accountability as Senator Clinton advocates, then shouldn’t Senators be working in the Senate doing the work of the people?
Illinois Senator Barack Obama promised his constituents after being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, “I can unequivocally say I will not be running for national office in four years, and my entire focus is making sure that I'm the best possible senator on behalf of the people of Illinois." Despite this categorical statement, Obama has missed 37 percent of his Senate votes. His focus does not seem to be on Illinois. His Senate website Calendar of Events states: “There are no Senate events scheduled at this time.”
The most egregious offender of this shirking of Senatorial responsibility is Arizona Senator John McCain. While McCain advocates strongly for accountability in schools and housing programs, as of March 14, 2008 he has missed 56 percent of Senate votes. McCain is in fact a repeat offender. In the presidential contest of 1999-2000, Senator McCain missed 30 percent of the Senate votes.
Former Republican Presidential candidate Sam Brownback of Kansas missed 26 percent of the Senate votes during his recent failed campaign. His spokesperson, Brian Hart, stated that Senator Brownback “would try his best to come back for any vote where he was absolutely needed for the outcome.” Somewhere it seems to have been forgotten that a Senator’s job is much more than the simple act of voting. A Senator attends committee hearings, collaborates with colleagues, attends and participates in discussions, and proposes amendments to legislation.
To counter this abuse and to make our Senators accountable again to the people, Title 2, Section 39 should be reinstated and enforced. Taxpayers who would certainly be fired for playing hooky from their jobs should not be forced to pay the salaries for absentee Senators who openly skip work to look for better jobs. As Peter Sepp of the National Tax Payers Union states: “With Presidential campaigns turning into two-and three-year sagas, the no-work, no-pay law is more relevant than ever . . . with more campaign drama to come, hundreds of thousands of tax dollars could be wasted on paying lawmakers who are hunting for a better job than the one the people elected them to do.”
Let’s get back to making our highly paid Senators accountable to the people again: “No money for nothin!” “No Senate checks for free!”
Rich Rubino, a Marblehead resident, is a political advisor specializing in independent political campaigns. He is a graduate of Assumption College and holds a Masters Degree in Journalism from Emerson College. Locally, he was a policy advisor to the Christy Mihos 2006 Gubernatorial Campaign.