Since losing his re-election bid to a Democratic challenger in November, lame-duck Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., has cast only two votes on the House floor—for the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act and a condemnation of a French street named after Mumia Abu-Jamal. Meanwhile, he’s skipped out altogether on the other 18 votes. Could he get in trouble for playing hooky?
Not by Congress. Only a congressman’s constituents can punish him for truancy. Neither the Senate nor the House of Representatives takes disciplinary action when a member fails to show up for work. Hypothetically, a politician could be elected to Congress and never show up for a single meeting or vote.
The two most common reasons for missing votes are ongoing political campaigns and illness. John Kerry famously missed 87 percent of the Senate’s roll call votes in the first half of 2004, during his presidential bid. According to the Washington Post’s database of votes missed, many of the House’s biggest offenders in the last two years were involved in tight electoral contests, such as Harold Ford Jr., D-Tenn., who lost his bid for the Senate, and Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, who won the governorship of Ohio.
The congressman who made the fewest appearances in the 109th Congress is Rep. Lane Evans, D-Ill., who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. (He chose not to seek re-election in 2006 after missing almost half of the session’s votes.) Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., also had a good reason for missing more than 100 votes: He was in rehab.
In the past, some ill members of Congress have missed even more of the action. In 1969, two years into his fourth term, South Dakota Sen. Karl E. Mundt, a Republican, suffered a stroke and was unable to continue voting. He offered to resign, but only on the condition that South Dakota’s governor appoint Mundt’s wife to fill the vacancy. The governor refused, and Mundt retained the Senate seat, even while missing three full years of votes. He even remained on three committees until 1972, when the Senate Republican Conference stripped him of these assignments. Similarly, in the 1940s, Sen. Carter Glass of Virginia missed two years’ worth of votes due to illness—he was87 and in failing health—but refused to retire even as newspapers from across his state pressured him to step aside.
If either house of Congress wanted to institute disciplinary action for absentee representatives, they would have to amend their rules of operation. But it’s unlikely that members would vote to give themselves stringent attendance guidelines.
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Explainer thanks Donald Ritchie of the Senate Historical Office.