Illinois representatives explain absences during votes

Marshall Cohen

Illinois representatives in Congress responded Wednesday to a Chicago Tribune article ranking the “best” and “worst” representatives based on percentage of missed votes in Congress.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Chicago) had the highest absentee rate, missing 13 percent of votes in the House of Representatives since he took office in 1993. U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Chicago) followed with 12 percent, according to the Jan. 17 article published in the Chicago Tribune.

Rush and Gutierrez were ranked fourth and seventh worst in the House, where the national average for votes missed was much lower at 3.9 percent. Government transparency firm provided the statistics.

“It’s a very misleading statistical model,” said Renee Ferguson, Rush’s communications director. “You can’t compare someone who has been in Congress for 19 years with the voting records of people who were elected two years ago.”

The graphic, as posted online, did include the date when each of the 19 representatives from Illinois first took office.

Some of the younger representatives, including U.S. Reps. Joe Walsh (R-McHenry), Robert Dold (R-Kenilworth) and Mike Quigley (D-Chicago), maintained attendance records that were better than the national average.

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Evanston) also beat the national average, only missing 2.1 percent of all votes since she entered office in 1999.

Ferguson said “life happens” after a politician spends nearly two decades in Congress. She suggested Rush had an inflated absence rate because of time spent recovering from cancer and mourning the recent loss of his son.

Rush was treated for a cancerous tumor in his salivary gland in the summer of 2008 and took some time off to recover after surgery to remove it.

A spokesman for Gutierrez gave a different explanation for his missed votes.

“He is a national leader on the immigration issue,” said Douglas Rivlin, the congressman’s press secretary. “Leading the effort on immigration reform over the last decade or so has unfortunately strained his schedule.”

The 10-term representative from Chicago traveled on national tours promoting immigration reform for the past three years and therefore occasionally misses Monday votes “that are often about renaming post offices,” Rivlin said.

In fact, some votes are more important than others, said Prof. Dick Simpson, former 44th Ward alderman in Chicago and current head of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“It’s better not to miss votes as a general principal,” Simpson said. “But there are a lot of votes in Congress, and some votes don’t matter very much and some are very important.”

Simpson added Rush and Gutierrez represented solidly Democratic districts that rarely produce viable Republican challengers and can afford to miss more votes than freshman representatives like Walsh and Dold, who need to prove to constituents that “they’re on the case” by consistently showing up.

Since 1999, Schakowsky has “proved” herself to her North Shore constituents by maintaining a low absentee rate.

“We’re there to represent the district when it comes to voting,” Schakowsky told The Daily on Wednesday. “I think that’s the principal function of Congress, and I see that as a basic responsibility of mine, so I do everything I can not to miss votes.”

Schakowsky said when she is not in Washington, she routinely schedules events all weekend long during outings to her newly redrawn district, which now includes Evanston, most of Glenview and part of Arlington Heights. She told The Daily her upcoming weekend schedule would be “fairly typical.”

She will arrive in Chicago on Friday night and attend three celebrations for the Lunar New Year on Saturday. The next day, Schakowsky will hold a fundraiser. On Monday, she will attend a breakfast in Glenview, meet with officials at Evanston Township High School and attend six other meetings before flying back to Washington, D.C. on Tuesday morning.

“I really make an effort at being known as someone who shows up and is accessible,” Schakowsky said. “People can call me Jan and expect to see me at the grocery store.”

Some representatives even outperformed Schakowsky, attending more than 99 percent of all House votes.

U.S. Reps. Randy Hultgren (R-Winfield), Judy Biggert (R-Hinsdale) and Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Chicago) had the three best records in Illinois and were absent less than 1 percent of the time.

Hultgren entered office last year but Biggert and Jackson Jr. have been serving since 1999 and 1995 respectively.

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