Here we have a perfect specimen of inside-the-Beltway thinking, in which people in Washington, D.C. think the inherent dysfunctionality of our giant federal government precludes criticizing those we elect to run it for dereliction of their duty to do so. First some background:
You see, Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) is being attacked by the Republican campaign of Thom Tillis for having missed a Senate Armed Service committee for a fundraiser. The topic of the hearing: ISIS. Hagan admitted missing the hearing in a debate this week. She had denied it earlier, saying she missed it for another hearing, not cocktails with rich people.
Tillis is predictably making hay with an ad entitled, “Cocktails.”
Cue Roll Call with an explanation of why missing hearings is no big thing because it happens all the time. It is true that it happens all the time, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. Perhaps we could think one step further than this:
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.”
Let’s go over this. Senators, generally very rich people who make six figures of taxpayer money to attend hearings, become informed proxies for the people, and vote on legislation rarely take those hearings seriously enough to attend, much less know what to ask or of whom they are asking it. And, the Beltway conclusion is “Hey, they can’t attend all these meetings. That’s insane! There are so many of them!”
A normal person outside the Beltway would conclude: “Gee, if you can’t take care of the barest of your responsibilities to be basically informed about the things on which you’re voting, maybe there’s something wrong with you, or the system. It’s not my objections to your irresponsibility that are the problem.”
Beltway: “Hey, we have so much to do, we can’t possibly do it in a responsible and well-informed manner!”
Normal people: “Great, do less.”
Beltway: “Hey, we can’t possibly read and understand every detail of every piece of legislation we’re passing!”
Normal people: “Great, pass less.”
It’s really not that much to ask. (Nor is it that much to ask that local media not sit on such stories for weeks while the Democratic candidate denies them in public.)
This kind of thing always reminds me of the month I arrived in Washington, D.C. to find out that, nope, the people we pick to represent us and vote on legislation rarely actually read that legislation. Naive, I know. I assumed they knew what they were voting on, and had taken all legislation into careful consideration, because that is their job. I was not alone in my naivete. We news junkies know plenty of people who make the same mistake, overestimating our public servants, and allowing them to get away with no end of nonsense. For them, at least innocent ignorance is an excuse. The people inside the Beltway, who know the truth, should not excuse this behavior, but they’re the most apt to do it. Thankfully, more regular citizens know the inner workings than used to. The protracted and much-protested Obamacare passage process helped the country in at least that way.
Senators, you had one job. And, you should lose it if you don’t do it.