Hawkings

When Campaigning Means Not Knowing About Your Potential Job

Another wave of outsiders attack insiders for justifiable behavior in Congress

Some House and Senate challengers display an outright ignorance of the place where they hope to make their new careers, writes David Hawkings. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Phi Beta Kappa biochemist doesn’t press for admission to medical school by deriding its faculty as lazy and the curriculum as behind the times. And the collegiate business whiz doesn’t bid for a spot in a Wall Street training program by labeling the current partners as self-serving and their investment strategy as all wrong.

What makes the would-be member of Congress so different? When did it become more than tolerable for these candidates to base their campaigns not only on derision and disrespect for Capitol Hill — but also on outright ignorance of the place where they hope to make their new careers?

Those questions are more than rhetorical once again this fall, when House and Senate candidates eager to come up with anti-Washington lines of attack have been cooking up another round of not-based-in-reality complaints about veteran lawmakers’ behavior.

Most notably, at least half a dozen Senate veterans are getting pilloried for their poor attendance at committee meetings. Such a criticism reveals plenty — not about the lackadaisical attitude these senators have for their jobs, but about their opponents’ willful ignorance of what their own workday lives would be like if they get to take office in January.

In the short term, of course, that’s beside the point. Winning in November is what matters, and the condemnation works: For at least a decade, outsiders have been lambasting lawmakers in both parties  for missing hearings — including three of the incumbent Democrats ousted in 2014.

But surely their Republican replacements — Cory Gardner of Colorado, Dan Sullivan of Alaska and Thom Tillis of North Carolina — see things differently now that they’re among a group of just 100 required to cover the entire Senate policymaking waterfront.

That’s why each got assigned to at least four committees, and altogether, they have spots on 30 subcommittees. Those panels all have plenty of meetings, many convened at the behest of a single senator to raise interest in a favorite issue. At most of these hearings, witnesses deliver scripted testimony and take some friendly questions. Bills are not actually debated and votes are not taken.

Often the chairman and the particularly interested senator are the only ones on the dais — because the attendance of others is neither required nor necessary, and because most senators have very good reasons to be doing other things. For sure, sometimes they sneak off to fundraisers or closed-door meetings on K Street when they could be doing official business out in the open. More often, they’re at legislative markups or leadership meetings where substance really is on the table, or they're spending time with constituents who’ve flown to D.C. to press their cause.

On top of all this, many times senators are double-booked (at least) from midmorning to midafternoon when Congress is in session. So they have to make choices, and a hearing at the Special Committee on Aging (which has no legislative jurisdiction) will hardly ever get chosen over a meeting at a top tier panel like Armed Services or Banking. 

Some lawmakers may be personally flawed, in other words, and others may espouse ideologies out of touch with the people back home. But precious few of them are slackers.

'Some lawmakers may be personally flawed, in other words, and others may espouse ideologies out of touch with the people back home. But precious few of them are slackers.'

And those who do shortchange their day jobs will always get caught whenever they miss what matters most — when the roll gets called in committee or on the floor and they fail to answer “yea” or “nay” on language that might become law someday.

Very few in Congress are boneheaded about managing their office books, either. Which is why candidates who criticize members for featherbedding their own overhead are in the same category as the “He missed too many hearings!” crowd — willfully ignorant about the workings of the job they want.

Tom O’Halleran, a Democratic former state legislator in a tossup race for an open House seat in Arizona, is just the latest example.  His new TV spot promises to fight to stop his new colleagues from “first class travel paid for by taxpayers” — seemingly oblivious to the fact that, since congressmen get a finite amount to spend each year, paying for an upgrade could well mean fewer flights to the district but would never be an added burden on the public.

Other challengers’ tropes, about incumbents having too many aides or spending too much on constituent communications, are readily refuted on similar fixed-budget grounds — and belie the notion that, once elected, newcomers would presumably want to have both a competent staff and easy access to the people they represent.

It’s all a perversion of the famous Groucho Marx line about never belonging to a club that would admit him as a member.

'It’s all a perversion of the famous Groucho Marx line about never belonging to a club that would admit him as a member.'

Such self-deprecation is rarely a politician’s way. But unless those who aspire to a life at the Capitol come to a better understanding of what the job entails, and stop running down the current occupants for beside-the-point reasons, the miserable reputation of Congress will remain hobbled by a series of self-inflicted wounds.

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