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In a steamy church after a week of record-high temperatures in Washington, D.C., Sen. Susan Collins sat quietly during Sunday Mass on Capitol Hill. She was back in town from Maine early, a habit she’s acquired over her more than 15 years in Congress, during which she has cast more than 5,000 votes without missing a single one.
Leaving a crisp Maine summer for sweltering Washington might not make much sense to most people. But Collins has gone to great lengths to protect her unblemished record, just like many others in the history of Congress. It’s a passion that harkens to the core of what many see as the pivotal role of a Member: represent the will of constituents through legislative action.
Even in a time when a Twitter snippet can draw more attention than a presidential summit, voting records still resonate in news reports and campaign materials.
“While I recognize that not every vote is a critical vote, at this time when the public’s confidence in Congress is so low, casting every single vote sends a strong signal to one’s constituents of dedication to the job and to respect for the high privilege that we have been given,” Collins said in an interview minutes before casting her 5,000th vote this week, a “nay” on a motion to kill an amendment to a small-business tax relief bill.
Collins does not hold the record for consecutive votes in the Senate — that mark belongs to the late Democrat William Proxmire (Wis.), who cast 10,252 votes from April 20, 1966, to Oct. 18, 1988. Among current Senators, Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) bests Collins with 6,448 after Thursday’s votes.
Collins says she didn’t start out to establish a record. But she realized early in her career that she had not missed any votes, which reminded her of one of her idols, legendary Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican who responded to 2,941 consecutive roll calls before being sidelined by hip surgery in 1968.
Ironically, one of the times Collins nearly missed a roll-call vote was when she was actually in the Capitol complex. In 2008, during a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee markup, Senate leadership called a floor vote.
Collins, the panel’s ranking member, ran out of the markup early, dashing from a Senate office building to the Capitol and twisting her ankle in the process. She answered that roll call shortly before the gavel fell to close the vote.
“I said to Sen. Joe Lieberman, ‘Joe you finish up without me, I just have to go. I just don’t trust that the vote is not going to close,’” Collins said with a laugh.
Collins’ colleagues have supported her in this effort: Earlier this year, her fellow Senators protected her streak by stopping a “vote-a-rama” on amendments to the highway bill earlier than planned to allow Senators to attend her engagement party on March 13.
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had previously announced plans to work late into the night to finish the bill, but he gave in to love.
“There is a very important event tonight — it may not mean much to anyone outside the Senate family, but it is to us, being able to recognize Susan Collins on a very special occasion in her life — and we are going to leave here so people who want to go to that event can do so,” Reid said.
Even the upcoming nuptials are not expected to affect her voting streak. Collins plans to get married during the August recess.
A Demonstration of Respect
For anyone who has spent time in the office buildings of the Capitol, the clamoring bells calling Members to vote are hard to ignore.
Looking at the last time Congressional Quarterly analyzed voting participation records, Congress showed higher participation rates in 2011 than in previous years: The House had a 96.6 percent participation rate, the highest since CQ began keeping track in 1953, and the Senate recorded 97 percent.
The House’s record is even more impressive considering that chamber recorded its third-highest roll-call vote total that year. By comparison, in 2010, the House had 94.2 percent and the Senate had a 96.6 percent participation rate.
When comparing voting records in the House and Senate, it’s important to note that the House has a much higher frequency of roll-call votes. In 2011, for example, the House held 945 roll calls and the Senate 235.
In the House, Rep. William Natcher (D-Ky.), who served until his death in 1994, holds the record for the most consecutive roll-call votes: He cast 18,401 consecutive votes over his 41 years in the House, before illness prevented him from coming to the chamber. He was even wheeled onto the House floor on a hospital gurney to place those final votes.
“If you are truly representing your constituents, you better have a good reason not to show up and vote,” Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) said. In his ninth term in the House, LoBiondo was one of nine House Members who had perfect attendance records in 2011, and he has yet to miss a vote in 2012.
Grassley, the current record-holder in the Senate, last missed a vote in July 1993; he was in Iowa at the time, inspecting flood damage.
“When the Senate’s in session, I’m in Washington voting, and when the Senate is out of session, I’m in Iowa’s 99 counties holding meetings with constituents,” he told Roll Call. “Not missing votes is a way to demonstrate respect for the public trust I hold in representing Iowans and to do the job I’m elected to do.” Grassley holds meetings in each of the 99 counties of Iowa each year.
Members can outline in the Congressional Record why they miss roll-call votes; sometimes press releases are issued. In March 2010, Rep. Dave Reichert’s (R-Wash.) office said the Congressman would miss the concurring vote to the bill that was to become the health care law because doctors advised him not to leave George Washington University Hospital. A tree branch had hit his head while he was chopping wood, and he had undergone surgery.
“I recognize that I have been blessed with good health and I haven’t had family emergencies that cause me to miss a vote,” Collins said. “An illness or a family emergency is certainly a good reason to miss a vote, so in some ways, I have been fortunate. But I do believe that a Senator’s most important responsibility is to vote.”