Why Do 'Congressional Truants' Still Get Paid While Openly Seeking Other Jobs?

10/15/2013 03:02 pm ET | Updated Dec 15, 2013

The partial federal government shutdown and debt ceiling controversy spotlight the partisan wrangling in the U.S. Congress. Republicans and Democrats fear working with members of the opposing party on major legislation. They fear electoral reprisals from their party base. Yet there are areas where both sides seem to agree. One of these areas of agreement is that members of Congress should be financially compensated whether or not they show up for work. American politics is perhaps the only field where office holders can spend the preponderance of their time campaigning for another office while being truant from the office they currently hold. Even politicians who espouse fiscal austerity in terms of government expenditures fail to see, or care about, the inherent contradiction in being paid by American taxpayers while shirking their duties in order to campaign for a better job.

U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) is the epitome of this phenomenon. In 2011, while styling herself as a fiscal conservative, she continued to take a $174,000 salary from American taxpayers while spending an inordinate amount of time on the hustings, campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination. She missed 88 straight roll call votes and failed to conduct a single town meeting that year with her constituents. By contrast, U.S. Representative Jason Altmire (D-PA) did not miss a single vote until his sixth year in office and was a constant tribune for the needs of his district. A true fiscal conservative, Altmire returned over $1 million to Uncle Sam which he failed to spend during his six years in the U.S. Congress. Yet both Bachmann and Altmire accrued the same salary.

It has become standard operating procedure for members of the U.S Congress to campaign for president during office hours, without having to face electoral recriminations from opponents. This is often because the opponents are doing the same thing themselves, consequently neutralizing the issue.

Another example of this phenomenon is the 2008 presidential election. The Democratic nominee, U.S. Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), missed 46.3 percent of Senate votes while the Republican presidential nominee, U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), missed 63.9 percent of Senate votes during the 2007-2008 legislative session. In addition, throughout this time period both candidates rarely met with constituents and were often absent from committee hearings. Their presidential campaign duties supplanted much of their Senate duties. In fact, Obama's website consistently stated: "There are no Senate events scheduled at this time."

This contradicts Obama's earlier statement: "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."

McCain is a repeat offender at missing votes while on the campaign hustings. In fact, he missed 30 percent of his votes in 1999-2000 in his unsuccessful bid for the GOP presidential nomination. Ironically, in the summer of 2008, while appearing on MSNBC, McCain, who had missed more votes than any other Senator, excoriated his colleagues for taking a recess. McCain explained: "80-some percent of the American people think the country's on the wrong track. Approval ratings of Congress -- I saw one poll, 12 percent, the lowest in 40 years they've been taking these polls. And meanwhile, what's the answer? Go out on a Fourth of July recess without passing a housing bill."

The last time a presidential candidate tried to make congressional truancy an issue was in 1960. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (D-TX), who had a sterling attendance record, tried to make missed Senate votes a campaign issue when running against U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy (D-MA) for the Democratic Presidential nomination. During a debate, Johnson challenged Kennedy for being on the campaign trail during a six-day Senate debate on Civil Rights legislation. Johnson exclaimed: "It was my considered judgment that my people had sent me to the senate to perform the duties of a United States Senator for which I was paid $22,500 a year." Kennedy responded simply: "It is true that Senator Johnson made a wonderful record in answering those quorum calls and I want to commend him for it." The issue died.

Kennedy was not the first Member of the Massachusetts Congressional Delegation to play hooky from his elected job. In 2003 and 2004, John Kerry in his quest for the Presidency missed a stunning 72 percent of the votes cast in the Senate. In fact, Kerry was campaigning in Kentucky when the Senate rejected a proposal to extend unemployment benefits. Kerry supported the proposal, which lost by just one vote. Had Kerry showed up for the vote, the plan would have passed the Senate. More recently, U.S. Representative Ed Markey was a Congressional no-show during his run to succeed Kerry in the Senate (Kerry left the Senate to become U.S. Secretary of State). Markey missed more than 40 straight Congressional votes.

There have been rare occasions when the truancy issue has become an incubus for a candidate. In 1978, U.S. Representative Jim Guy Tucker (D-AR) was running for the U.S. Senate. He had missed a litany of House votes while on the campaign trail. The campaign of his Democratic primary opponent, Arkansas Governor David Pryor, aired an advertisement with a person pretending to be the Speaker of the House exclaiming: "How Does the House Vote? Congressman Thorton?" "Aye." "Congressman Hammerschmidt?" "Nay." Congressman Alexander?" "Aye." Congressman Tucker? . . . Is Jim Guy Tucker here? . . . Will someone please check the cloakroom . . . . Mr. Tucker? . . . Mr. Tucker?" The announcer averred: "You can't lead if you're not there." This was in contravention of Tucker's campaign slogan: "The Difference is leadership." Tucker's momentum was quashed and Pryor won the race.

Surprisingly, there is a federal statue on the books that disallows members of the U.S. Congress from receiving remuneration while absent from the Congress. "Title 2, Section 39" is cited in full 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 it has never been enforced.

This measure should be enforced in the House and reinstituted in the Senate. At a time of fiscal austerity, it makes no sense that members of the U.S. Congress are paid the same amount whether or not they do the job they were elected to do. Few employers would allow an employee to spend an inordinate amount of time away from their office looking for another job. The question is: Why do the American people (the employers of members of the U.S. Congress) allow their elected representatives to get away with this practice?