Congress Gets an 'A' For Voter Participation

As lawmakers return from recess, they'll have a hard time besting last year's best-ever voting record.

Members of Congress go to great lengths to carry out their most fundamental responsibility: casting their vote.

That sense of obligation has fluctuated over the years, but of late it's been on the rise. In recent years, lawmakers have been carried on stretchers onto the chamber floor to give their yea or nay. To clinch neck-and-neck votes, leaders have even had members arrested by the sergeant-at-arms and hauled into the House or Senate.

As a new session of Congress gets under way, lawmakers will have a tough time besting last year's voting record. Members' vote participation reached a 45-year high in 1997, according to a recent study by Congressional Quarterly, a weekly magazine about Congress.

Bolstered by the ease of today's air travel and a growing pressure to be accountable to voters, among other things, the average member showed up for 96.5 percent of all roll-call votes, tying a record set in 1995.

Twenty-six senators had perfect voting records, as did nine House members. (The House had twice as many roll-call votes as did the upper chamber.)

The high voting rate contrasts with that of the late 1960s and early 1970s, when members showed up less than 80 percent of the time.

"When I was in Congress, only [Rep.] Bill Natcher [of Kentucky, who boasted a 40-year streak of making every roll-call vote] and young members were concerned about their voting records," says former Rep. Bill Frenzel (R) of Minnesota, now a fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "Now they seem to be extra interested in the percentage they receive."

ALTHOUGH many observers aren't sure why members are more diligent than they used to be, House minority whip David Bonior (D) of Michigan has his own theory: "Good food in the House restaurant. [Members] don't leave the Hill as much," he jokes.

More seriously, he points to the House schedule as a possible explanation. In an era of easy air travel, the House no longer meets on most Mondays and Fridays in order to allow members time to work in their districts. That's a big change from the days when a trip to a Midwestern or West Coast district could involve days of train travel.

"Maybe it's because we are here three days a week, basically, and people feel that while they're here they should be voting," Representative Bonior says.

Each new class of members has been increasingly worried about how it is portrayed, adds Mr. Frenzel.

"You can see that in the usual reluctance to vote for pay raises, to engage in foreign travel even by committees whose jurisdiction would seem to require foreign travel."

Frenzel says congressional campaigns have changed as well. Challengers now attack incumbents, not just on their political stands, but on their personal behavior as well. A member who travels too much, misses votes, or votes to raise his or her pay opens the door to attack during the next campaign. Showing up for votes has become a yardstick by which the public judges a member's performance.

"More aggressive campaigning, more money spent on campaigning have caused members to be more nervous," he says. "Members to try to protect themselves, try not to give opponents any good targets.

"A lot of what has driven politics in the past several election cycles is a desire to end politics as usual, and that has led to candidates making certain assurances to the electorate," says Tim Penny, a former Democratic congressman from Minnesota. Members want to be able to say: "I can't be one of the bad guys because I'm always there and I always vote."

The obligation members now feel is illustrated by an incident in October. While Republican leaders wanted to adjourn by 3 p.m. for a week-long recess during the Jewish high holy days, Democrats slowed down routine bills, upset that not enough of their noncontroversial measures were making it to the floor.

House leaders warned that they couldn't adjourn if they couldn't get through the day's agenda, but Jewish members needed to get home by sundown for religious reasons.

Finally, after a behind-the-scenes compromise, House majority leader Dick Armey (R) of Texas threw in the towel and moved to adjourn right at 3 p.m. so the Jewish members could leave on time.

The incident highlights members' desire to make as many votes as possible.

"Nobody wants to say they had a poor voting record," Bonior says. "But if you can say you got a 95 or a 96, that's an 'A' in anybody's book."

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