House Democratic Caucus Cracks Down on Lateness

Posted June 22, 2005 at 6:34pm

A crackdown on absenteeism has expanded in House Democratic circles, with Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) threatening Wednesday to cancel the weekly members’ meeting if lawmakers continue to show up late.

Menendez told his Democratic colleagues that if they don’t arrive at the Caucus meeting next Wednesday by 9:05 a.m., five minutes after the session is scheduled to start, he will promptly end the meeting.

Democratic sources said the Caucus routinely gets under way as much as 20 to 30 minutes late.

Menendez, who has a reputation for enforcing Caucus protocols, told members that it is not only inefficient to delay the start of the regular, closed-door session for House Democrats, but also that it is unfair to those lawmakers who do show up on time. The Caucus meeting usually lasts an hour.

Menendez “was urging members to arrive on time at the next meeting and at subsequent meetings,” said Matt Miller, spokesman for the New Jersey Democrat. “I fully expect members will be there next week.”

Miller added: “We have business that has to be done at every Caucus, and we need time to do it.”

The effort to police Caucus meeting attendance comes as other Democratic constituency groups, including the moderate New Democrats and the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, work to boost participation and attendance at their meetings.

While unrelated to Menendez’s anti-truancy crusade, the 35-member Blue Dog group has recently tightened its requirements for meeting attendance, and made clear through a series of letters to its members that absenteeism is not acceptable. Sources said members who miss several meetings are now receiving letters updating their participation levels.

Earlier this year, the Blue Dogs set a new policy for attendance, requiring that its members attend at least 50 percent of the group’s sessions. The organization’s leaders said they felt the criteria were necessary to ensure the strength of members’ commitment to the Blue Dogs, and to allow them to make decisions based on a supermajority vote.

The Blue Dogs’ bylaws require that two-thirds of its “active members” vote to agree on their official positions.

Rep. Jim Matheson (Utah), a Blue Dog co-chairman, said while the group has had solid participation, it wants to avoid having to track down one or two members when holding a key vote. He said it’s not about truancy, but rather about ensuring that members are aware of Blue Dog events and remain dedicated to the organizations’ policy goals.

“The idea here is to encourage people to show up,” Matheson said.

Since the attendance enforcement began, Blue Dog sources said, no members have been kicked out, nor have any opted to leave the Blue Dog group on their own.

But one member, Rep. Ellen Tauscher (Calif.), who also chairs the New Democrat Coalition, has taken a two-year leave of absence from the organization. Tauscher decided to take the hiatus in order to focus on the New Democrat group and meet its new participation requirements, sources said.

The new requirements, which leaders credit with a stronger and more committed coalition, led to a reduction in the New Democrat membership from about 70 to 43 members.

As for the Blue Dogs, Matheson said they too want to hold onto their influence and make strong policy decisions backed by the bulk of their members.

“We’re not booting people out,” Matheson said. “We are member-driven, so we decided, ‘Let’s encourage a reasonable level of participation.’ We just want people to stay aware of events that are going on. We think it’s helpful.”

CORRECTION: The June 23 article “House Democratic Caucus Cracks Down on Lateness” incorrectly reported that the New Democrat Coalition requires its members to contribute to the group’s political action committee. The NDC places no such requirement on its members.