MN-08: Does Rick Nolan’s record in Congress reflect a poor work ethic?

“Congress needs to go to work five days a week like everyone else in America!” has been U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan’s rallying cry since returning to Congress in 2013, pointing to his previous service during the 1970s as an example of what should be done. However, Nolan’s record while representing the 6th district in Congress suggests a poor work ethic not in sync with residents of Northern Minnesota, and reflects a pattern that should be of concern to his 8th district constituents.

Concerns about Nolan’s attendence were first raised during the 2012 campaign by 8th district incumbent Rep. Chip Cravaack. Cravaack pointed out that Nolan missed a large number of votes during his last term in office from 1979-80, which Nolan promptly dismissed as “cherry picking” and not indicative of his time in public office. And Nolan insisted that he was there for all of the critical votes.

(The UpTake)

But the public record contradicts both of Nolan’s claims and an analysis of his voting record reveals a troubling pattern.

Between 1975-80, 6th District Rep. Richard Nolan missed 17.70 percent of recorded votes. As a point of reference, 8th district Rep. Jim Oberstar missed just .96 percent of recorded votes during that same period.

According to GovTrack, Nolan’s current lifetime average is 13.9 percent, still significantly higher than the median of 2.5 percent.

And note that Nolan’s rate of absenteeism climbed with every successive year in Congress.

Nolan Voting Record

In 1975, Nolan missed votes on 16 of the 143 days Congress held recorded votes and missed all votes on three days. But by his last year in office, that had mushroomed to missing votes on 83 of the 125 days Congress held recorded votes. He missed all recorded votes on 34 days – including the entire month of November.

The missed votes were not, as Nolan claimed, inconsequential.

Breakdown of Missed Votes

The majority of the votes Nolan missed in 1975 were on final passage of bills,conference committee reports and amendments, including those addressing criminal procedure, the fishing and agricultural industries and prohibiting common situs picketing.

In 1980, once again the vast majority of those missed votes were on final passage of bills,conference committee reports and amendments, including important votes on veteran’s disability benefits and vocational rehabilitation, mental health services,Indian health care and foreign policy.

Nolan missed two votes on major bills in 1975, four in 1976, 11 in 1977, 20 in 1978, 29 in 1979 and 29 in 1980. This includes votes on final passage of appropriations for Department of Defense, Military Construction, Public Works, Transportation, International Monetary Fund, Agriculture and Related Agencies, Foreign Assistance and Related Programs, Labor and Health Education and Welfare, Energy and Water Development, Treasury and Postal Service, State, Interior, Justice and Commerce.

Nolan is correct that procedural votes, such as those that set the rules for debate, are typically not given as much weight as passing appropriations bills or other legislation. But they can’t be dismissed as those of little consequence either.

The procedural votes are how Congress does its business, setting everything from how long a bill will be debated to how many amendments will be allowed. Demanding recorded votes on mundane things like approval of the Journal is one way for Leadership to get Members to the floor. And procedure is part of the strategy to pass -or kill-legislation. Oberstar, for example, employed a variety of procedural maneuvers during his efforts to keep the BWCA open to snowmobiles and motorboats, fighting in opposition to Nolan’s bill that designated every inch of the BWCA as wilderness.

Even more puzzling is that these procedural votes and votes on amendments that Nolan said were “of no consequence” are exactly what Nolan refers to when complaining about the current House not operating under his definition of ‘regular order.’

What exactly is the point of pushing to consider legislation under an open rule if you’re not going to bother to show up to vote?

Nolan’s rather cavalier attitude towards his responsibilities as congressman is as disturbing as his lack of candor.

Being stuck on the floor debating legislation or fighting over procedure for hours on end is arguably a lot less fun than being back in the office schmoozing with visitors, but it is an important part of the job.

The Rules of the House of Representatives acknowledges that constituents expect their representatives to show up for work and states that Members shall vote on each question. But,the House does not enforce this provision.

And recorded votes represent only a fraction of the number of votes in the House. Many more are voice-votes and division votes that are taken only among those present on the floor and are not recorded. Recorded votes allow Members 15 minutes to get to the floor to cast a vote.

Nolan’s attendence record is summarized below and shows that his first year representing the 8th district is on par with his first year representing the 6th district.

Nolan Attendance Record

In 2012, MPR’s Brett Neely noted that Cravaack’s claim had merits and that Nolan’s defense didn’t hold up but didn’t get any answers from the Nolan camp:

“We had a heck of a of a lot more votes than your Congress ever did and I was always there for the important issues,” Nolan said. “I missed a few votes on the recording of the minutes and the naming of post offices but when the critical issues were up, I was there…

The Congress Cravaack currently serves in has actually held more roll call votes than the one in Nolan’s final term in office. And as Cravaack’s campaign points out, some of those votes Nolan missed include major spending bills.

Neither Nolan nor his campaign manager would explain why Nolan was so absent in his final term. Misterek calls the whole issue a distraction.

“They’re trying to talk about votes 30 years ago that were of very little relevance to the job of the congressman,” Misterek said.

Nolan too continued to insist that he never missed any important votes:

(KSTP Tom Hauser)

The difference in the number and nature of the missed votes over a six-year period is just too stark to be explained away as faulty memory.

Nolan frequently compares Congress to a business when criticizing how the House operates. So, let’s follow Nolan’s lead and put his attendence in the context of the typical worker.

How effectively could a business operate with an employee who, like Nolan, has an absenteeism rate that ranges from two percent to 27 percent and fails to fulfill basic job requirements on eight percent to 66 percent of the days he is at work?

If recorded votes are viewed as a meeting or a task, can you imagine telling your boss you missed three percent of your meetings or didn’t complete 39 percent of your tasks because you didn’t feel like it was important?

And would you then expect a pay raise?

Nolan did.

He voted to increase his salary four times during that same period.

So much for “It’s time for Congress to start living in the real world – where you either do your job, or you don’t get paid.” as Nolan declared in 2013 when promoting his No Government No Pay Act.

Rick Nolan waxes nostalgic for the 1970s, but he complained about how Congress operated back then too. The GOP will remain in control of the House in 2015, and if Nolan showed this kind of disinterest when his party was in control and Congress operated under rules he viewed as favorable, can he be expected to behave any differently if returned for another term?