A Legacy of 'Congressional Truancy': From Harding to Kennedy to Obama to Rubio

In this Nov. 13, 2015, photo, Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R- Fla., addresses the Sunshine Summit in
In this Nov. 13, 2015, photo, Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R- Fla., addresses the Sunshine Summit in Orlando, Fla. Bring on Donald Trump, and Ben Carson, too. That’s what Democratic insiders are saying about the Republican outsiders who sit solidly atop preference polls in the race for the GOP nomination for president. They are far more worried about GOP candidates who have experience in office, with Rubio cited most often as the strongest potential competition for their overwhelming choice for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

While waging his Presidential campaign, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) is under constant criticism for missing over 30 percent of Senate votes in 2015. Rubio has also has missed Senate committee hearings in order to attend fundraisers. A major newspaper in his state, The Sun Sentinel, has called on Rubio to resign from the Senate, admonishing him for "ripping us off."

The U.S. Senate is a unique vocation in that a person can get elected to the body, then spend as much or a little time actually doing the job of a Senator and still get paid. For example, in 1969, U.S. Senator Karl Mundt (R-SD) suffered a stroke. Mundt served out the remainder of his term, which expired in 1973, but was unable to cast a single vote during his four remaining years in the Senate.

There are two kinds of senators. There are those who see election to the Senate as the high-water mark of their career and see themselves as spoilsmen. They see their legacy as delivering as much largess to their respective state as possible. Their major focus is on issues important to their particular state. These senators largely go unnoticed nationally. They thrive to serve on committees where they can be the most help to their state.

The most coveted prize for these members is the Senate Committee on Appropriations, which controls discretionary spending. Carl Hayden, who served in the body from 1927-1969, and as Chairman of this committee from 1955-1969, accrued the nickname "The Silent Senator" because of his reticence to speak on the Senate Floor. He never sought the Presidency. Hayden instead worked behind the scenes at securing largess for his state. His greatest accomplishment was likely the establishment of the Central Arizona Project, which brings water from the Colorado River into Arizona. Securing this project would bring him little cache for a Presidential bid, but is a lasting legacy for a Senator whose legislative ambition is parochial in nature.

The other type of senator uses the Senate as a way station to the presidency. Every move is calculated toward boosting his/her national profile. These senators have little interest in the day-to-day proceedings of the Senate. They spend much of their time on the campaign hustings, raising money for their colleagues, introducing themselves to party activists in the hopes that they will earn their support in a future Presidential campaign.

The only three members of the Senate to be elected directly from the body to the Presidency are Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama. All three exhibited unspectacular Senate records and missed many votes while participating in political events. Furthermore, they all served on the Committee on Foreign Relations. Senator Rubio is following their playbook.

Rubio, like Warren G. Harding, was elected to the Senate by defeating a well-known Republican. Rubio defeated Governor Charlie Christ, who enjoyed the support of the GOP establishment by running as a grassroots conservative alternative opponent. Harding ran an insurrectionist campaign in the 1914 Republican Senatorial primary against former U.S. Senator Joseph B. Foraker (R-OH). Foraker was a national figure, having run for the Republican Presidential nomination unsuccessfully in 1908.

Also like Rubio, Harding used his Senate seat as a mere steppingstone to the Presidency, and spent much of his time as a Senator barnstorming the country campaigning for Republican candidates, collecting chits, and effectuating a national profile. Like Rubio, Harding served just one term in the U.S. Senate. During that time period Harding missed about two-thirds of Senate votes. Again, like Rubio, Harding served on the Committee on Foreign Relations to sure up his foreign policy bone fides for a Presidential run.

Similar to Rubio, Harding became a noted orator and delivered the coveted keynote address at the Republican National Convention in 1916. In 1920, at the end of his Senate term, Harding won his party's Presidential nomination and won the Presidency.

Like Harding and Rubio, John F. Kennedy had an undistinguished Senate career. Kennedy also secured a seat on the Committee on Foreign Relations from which to showcase his foreign policy bone fides. Kennedy took full advantage of his position. He raised his national profile by appearing on national television discussing international affairs. He also wrote the book Profiles in Courage, which spotlighted U.S. Senators who had taken unpopular stands. However, Kennedy had few substantive Senate accomplishments.

In 1960, Kennedy ran for the Democratic Presidential nomination against four seasoned Senators with more accomplished legislative records: Lyndon B. Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Stuart Symington, and Wayne Morse. Interestingly, Johnson unsuccessfully tried to make Kennedy's absenteeism from the Senate a campaign issue. This is similar to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush's failed attempt to use Rubio's congressional truancy against him in a recent Presidential debate.

Both Rubio and Kennedy dexterously turned these attacks against their opponents. Bush exclaimed to Rubio: "Marco, when you signed up for this, this was a six-year term. I mean, literally the Senate, what, is it a French work week where you have three days to show up? You can campaign, or just resign and let someone else take the job." Rubio was quick to retort that Bush was modeling his campaign after U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) who won the Republican Presidential nomination in 2008. McCain missed the majority of Senate votes in 2007 while campaigning. Rubio averred: "I don't remember you ever complaining about John McCain's voting record. The only reason why you're doing it now is because we're running for the same position, and someone has convinced you that attacking me is going to help you."

Rubio's glib comment effectuated uproarious applause from the mostly Republican audience. Rubio had taken a page from Kennedy's playbook. During a public debate between Kennedy and Johnson, Johnson challenged Kennedy for being on the campaign trail during a six-day Senate debate on Civil Rights legislation. Johnson exclaimed: "It was my considered judgment that my people had sent me to the Senate to perform the duties of a United States Senator for which I was paid $22,500 a year." Kennedy riposted simply: "It is true that Senator Johnson made a wonderful record in answering those quorum calls and I want to commend him for it." The issue died and Kennedy went on to win the nomination and the Presidency.

Senator Rubio is often compared with the current President, Barack Obama. Obama was elected to the Senate in 2004. As a Senator, Rubio, like Obama, won a seat on the Committee on Foreign Relations. Furthermore, like Rubio, Obama came from a State Legislative background, and as soon as he was elected to the Senate, he was mentioned in high profile political circles as a potential Presidential nominee. Obama spent much of the 2006 mid-term election cycle campaigning for Democrats around the country and became a political rock star with grassroots Democratic activists, party benefactors, and even some in the Democratic establishment who feared that the preponderant frontrunner for the nomination, U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), was too divisive a figure to be elected President. By early 2007, Obama launched his Presidential bid, and over the next two years spent much of his time on the campaign trail, returning to the Senate only when the leadership needed him for key votes.

Rubio hopes to be the fourth U.S. Senator to rise directly to the presidency. He appears willing to sacrifice his Senate duties to achieve that objective. Rubio will likely continue to weather the Congressional truancy charge in his quest to join Harding, Kennedy and Obama as unspectacular senators who ascended directly from the Senate to the presidency.

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