The Missing Donkey in the Room

With all the attention focused on the second round of Democratic presidential debates this week, it is understandable that one might lose sight of other, less exciting news. But here’s a related item that deserves some attention:

While the 2020 aspirants debate such issues of national importance as, say, immigration, the Senate Judiciary Committee was attempting to address that very issue. The word used here is “attempting,” because due to a procedural difficulty the committee was not able to meet for a vote on South Carolina Republican Chairman Lindsey Graham’s asylum bill.

The legislative proposals in question touch on aspects of the immigration system that have been inflaming national opinion and stoking the impending presidential campaign for months. Senator Graham wants to increase the number of days a family can be kept together from 20 days to 100 days, require that asylum claims be filed in a home country instead of the U.S., provide urgently needed funding for 500 new immigration judges, and allow unaccompanied minors from Central America to be sent back home, as is already done with minors from Canada or Mexico.

The Democratic members on the committee object, among other things, to extending detention for minors. But Senate rules require that at least seven committee members attend from the majority and two from the minority. Since only one Democrat — California Senator Dianne Feinstein — showed up on the day of the vote, it had to be postponed.

An impatient Graham threatened to get his vote next week by changing the rules if necessary to allow for voting without the quorum. Feinstein objected.

Whether the committee will or will not vote before the August recess remains to be seen. Meanwhile, in its coverage of the incident, The Hill noted that “it wasn’t clear why the committee’s 10 Democrats, except Feinstein, missed last week’s meeting, or if they would attend Thursday’s. Several of the panel’s Democrats are running for president, while others were at other meetings happening at the same time.”

Let us fill in the blanks: The panel’s Democrats running for president are Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). All three are slated to participate in the second round of debates on July 30 and 31 in Detroit.

Not that the absenteeism is only due to the debates. Harris and Booker have each missed more than one-fifth of the Senate’s votes so far this year as they campaign for president, according to the Associated Press. Senator Bernie Sanders has missed seven votes, while Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Amy Klobuchar have each missed three and Senator Elizabeth Warren has missed one vote, the AP found.

Feinstein, the senior Democrat on the committee, wrote an indignant missive to the committee chairman, saying that his talk about “changing the rules unilaterally in a partisan manner is deeply concerning.”

What, apparently, is not deeply concerning to her is the absence of every one of her colleagues, all of whom nevertheless maintain that they are deeply concerned about the immigration system.

The question will not be asked during the debates how the candidates manage to discharge their senatorial duties while gallivanting around the country showing off their presidential style. It would cause too much embarrassment all around. Though it is — in a sense — the elephant in the room. Or, since this is the Democratic party, the donkey in the room.

Of course, the problem of absentee senators running for president is not new. The U.S. Senate has often been used as a stepping-stone to the presidency.

Lyndon Johnson, for one, was scathing in his dismissal of Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy’s no-show record while running for the White House: “He never said a word of importance in the Senate and he never did a thing,” he told historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Actually, the subject of missed Senate votes does occasionally come up on the campaign trail. Asked about his missed votes on a visit to Atlanta, Cory Booker told reporters: “I’m very confident the people of New Jersey know I’m working for them and delivering results.”

That’s a confident answer, but it doesn’t explain how he delivers those results so far from Washington.

Florida’s Republican Senator Marco Rubio caught flak for being away so much in the 2016 presidential race, and his spokesman Alex Conant was called upon to defend him: “Senator Rubio remains fully engaged in the issues important to Florida and helping Floridians, and as he travels the country to talk about his agenda to help the middle class, there will be no doubt where he stands on any important issues before the Senate.”

Furthermore, Conant said, his man didn’t miss a vote where he would have changed the outcome. As for committee work — which some say is also important — Rubio has experts and staff fill him in, he said.

That’s a plausible response. It’s what a responsible public servant should do while he’s chasing his personal ambitions and traveling around the country. After all, a president has to know how to delegate authority.