In the 2014 midterm elections, Republicans embraced a curious line of attack with great enthusiasm: voters should start caring, for the first time ever, about which senators show up to which committee hearings.
As regular readers may recall, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), for example, traveled to North Carolina in the hopes of defeating then-Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.). The Republican specifically went after the Democrat for having missed some Senate Armed Services Committee hearings. “Here we are with Americans being beheaded, and Sen. Hagan doesn’t even show up for the briefing,” McCain griped.
The same week, the Arizona Republican traveled to New Hampshire to complain about Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s (D-N.H.) imperfect attendance at Senate Armed Services Committee meetings. “I don’t see her at very many of the hearings,” McCain said, citing this as proof that the Democrat is not a “serious member” of the panel.
This has never struck me as a compelling issue, but it’s nevertheless interesting to see Democrats use the Republicans’ line of attack against them. The Columbus Dispatch reported this week:
The Ohio Democratic Party is teeing off on a report that Sen. Rob Portman has missed 72 percent of his Homeland Security Committee hearings during his first five years in the Senate. […]Also a Democratic target: GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who, like Portman, is running for re-election. The report found that Ayotte missed 47 percent of Homeland Security Committee meetings during her time on the panel, including 45 percent of the hearings on border security and two-thirds of the hearings on drug trafficking.
Revisiting a piece from two years ago, I understand the point of the criticisms – in an era in which Congress struggles mightily to complete even routine tasks, to learn that an elected lawmaker often doesn’t even show up for hearings, briefings, and votes reinforces perceptions of Washington ineptitude.
The argument, however, isn’t always fair. Senators routinely serve on multiple committees, some of which schedule hearings at the same time. When a lawmaker chooses to attend one, it doesn’t necessarily mean he or she has no interest in the other issue.
What is noteworthy, though, is the fact that it’s too late for Republicans to close the Pandora’s Box they opened. In 2014, they decided committee attendance was an important issue and an excellent way to evaluate senators’ dedication and seriousness. “Fine,” Democrats have effectively responded. “Let’s play by your rules.”
Whether the criticism has merit or not, Republicans opened this door; they can’t be too surprised when their rivals walk through it.