Who Shows Up When the Votes Are Counted? Print
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Tuesday, 10 February 2004 18:00
When she announced late last month that she was running for Congress against longtime U.S. Representative Lane Evans, former television anchor Andrea Zinga cited the incumbent’s health as one factor in her candidacy.

“Denying reality serves no one,” she said. “In this campaign, the simple unvarnished truth that I am sorry to report is that our Congressman can’t do the job anymore. His health does not permit it.”

Zinga, a Republican, said that Evans, who has had Parkinson’s Disease since 1995, “doesn’t hold town-hall meetings; he hasn’t been to areas of the newer part of the district; he misses most parades and community events; [and] he doesn’t have an active schedule on weekends traveling the district.”

The criticism of Evans garnered attention nationwide, particularly in Parkinson’s circles. It also portends a nasty campaign, with Zinga aggressively attacking Evans at the outset. (The incumbent representative is also facing a Federal Election Commission complaint, filed last month, that his spokesperson claims was spearheaded by Republicans. The complaint alleges that Evans’ campaign circumvented contribution limits with the 17th District Victory Fund.) Evans and Zinga are unopposed in their primaries and will square off in November.

But the fundamental question that Zinga raises is whether Evans’ performance has been affected by Parkinson’s. Specifically, she claims that Evans doesn’t spend enough time in his legislative district, and that he is therefore out-of-touch with constituent concerns. She also claimed that Evans misses committee meetings.

Her criteria are conveniently outside of the public record, and there’s no baseline that says how many parades or town-hall meetings a member of Congress must attend to be effective. His office has provided lists of community events Evans has attended. For example, Evans hosted nine town-hall meetings in his district in January, according to spokesperson Steve Vetzner. He added that Evans attended 100 percent of committee “markup” meetings – sessions at which legislation originates – from 1995 to the present.

Still, Zinga’s claim piqued the interest of the River Cities’ Reader. We decided to find an objective way to measure the participation level of members of Congress. Specifically, we wanted to see how Evans and the rest of the Illinois and Iowa delegations stacked up to the rest of Congress on the most basic participative level: on roll-call votes. A member of Congress who doesn’t show up for votes probably isn’t attending to the district’s business overall.

The Reader was also intrigued by a lawsuit brought in late January by the American Conservative Union. The suit invoked a law from the 1850s in claiming that Representative Dick Gephardt should re-pay most of his $155,000 salary from 2003 because he missed so many votes – nearly 90 percent – while running for president. The law clearly authorizes the chief administrative officer of the House to deduct pay from a representative’s salary for each missed day unless it was the result of an illness, but the statute hasn’t been enforced in nearly a century.

Culled from data compiled by Voter Information Services (http://www.vis.org), this chart shows the percentage of missed votes for the past three years for each current member of Congress from Illinois and Iowa, along with members of Congress who are, or were, running for president. It also lists the voting record of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich for his time in Congress.

In spite of Zinga’s criticism, Evans’ record is better than the House average in each of the past three years. Evans missed only 1.94 percent of roll-call votes in the House in 2001, 2002, and 2003, while representatives overall missed 3.73 percent of votes. He missed fewer votes than local representatives from Iowa Jim Leach (2.99 percent) and Jim Nussle (2.10 percent). Representatives have had an average of roughly 400 roll-call-vote opportunities in the past three years.

Senators, who average fewer than 300 vote opportunities per year, generally missed a smaller percentage of votes. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) didn’t miss a single vote in any of the three years. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) missed two (0.08 percent) and Senator Peter Fitzgerald (R-Illinois) five (0.59 percent). Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) had the worst percentage in the Quad Cities’ Senate delegation, missing 3.21 percent of roll-call votes. Senators overall missed 2.57 percent of votes.

Democrats in the Illinois and Iowa delegations missed a higher percentage of votes (4.58 percent) than Republicans (2.23 percent). Those numbers were skewed by a pair of Chicago-area Democrats who’ve missed more than 10 percent of roll-call votes over the past three years: William Lipinski (15.66 percent) and Luis Gutierrez (11.46 percent).

Running for higher office takes its toll on attendance in Congress. When campaigning for governor in 2002, Blagojevich missed nearly 40 percent of roll-call votes. Among presidential candidates from Congress, Gephardt had the worst voting record, missing nearly 90 percent of roll-call votes in 2003. John Kerry missed more than 60 percent of votes. It should be noted that most of these current or former presidential candidates had respectable roll call records in 2001 and 2002, although Gephardt missed more than 6 percent of the votes in each of those years.