WASHINGTON Despite his office being just across the hall from the Senate Judiciary Committee chambers, Sen. John Edwards has the worst attendance record of any committee member since he joined it three years ago.
That has Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, questioning whether Edwards, John Kerry's choice as his Democratic vice presidential nominee, is more show horse than work horse, a common criticism by Republicans.
"He is rarely present at important committee meetings, and as a voter that is something I would want to know about," Hatch said.
Michael Briggs, Edwards' press secretary, blamed the absences on the election campaign, saying, "When senators run for president, they miss votes and miss committee hearings."
However, a Deseret Morning News review of committee records shows that Edwards' attendance was low even before he began his unsuccessful bid to become the Democrats' nominee for president or became Kerry's vice presidential candidate; his attendance has just gotten worse.
For example, during the 107th Congress in 2001 and 2002 before Edwards began his presidential campaign he attended 10 of the 30 business meetings (for debate and votes) that were held after he joined the committee in July 2001. His 33 percent average attendance was half the 70 percent average for all committee members.
That meant Edwards had the second-worst attendance for that pre-campaign period, behind Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who attended one less meeting. Edwards was also tied with the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, D-S.C., who was then 99 years old and in failing health.
When hearings are added into the total along with business meetings for that same period, Edwards finished fourth-lowest among 19 members, behind Thurmond, Joe Biden, D-Del., and Kennedy.
Edwards attended 31 of 91 total meetings, or 34 percent. The committee attendance average was 49 percent.
Once Edwards started seeking the White House, his attendance dropped further, giving him the lowest attendance on the committee both for the 2003-04 108th Congress, and for the entire three years since he joined the committee.Details for different categories include:
- In the 108th Congress in 2003-04, Edwards attended three of 34 business meetings worst on the committee or 9 percent. The average for all committee members was 69 percent, or almost eight times higher.
- Edwards did not stay for all of the meetings he did attend. Committee records show his votes were recorded "by proxy" at some of those meetings. After the committee achieves a quorum, busy senators often leave and allow a party leader to vote by proxy for them.
- While Edwards attended the first five business meetings after he first was appointed to the committee, he attended only eight of the next 59 over three years.
- In 2003-04, Edwards attended six of 87 hearings (7 percent), lowest on the committee. The average for all committee members was 28 percent, or four times higher.
- That means for 2003-04, Edwards attended nine of 121 (7 percent) total committee meetings. The average for all committee members was 39 percent or five times higher.
- For all three years Edwards has been on the committee, he attended 40 of 212 total committee meetings (19 percent), tying for worst with Biden. The committee average was 38 percent, or twice as high. (Hatch had the highest attendance average in that time, 76 percent.)
- For those three years, Edwards attended 27 of 148 hearings (18 percent) and was second-lowest on the committee behind Biden. The committee average was 32 percent. He attended 13 of 64 (20 percent) business meetings lowest on the committee. The committee average for such business meetings was 69 percent, more than three times higher.
Briggs defended Edwards' record, saying it is normal for presidential candidates to have low attendance records.
"I'd like to see what Sen. Hatch's record was when he ran for president. But on the other hand, he wasn't in the race that long," he said.
Briggs said Edwards tried to attend the most important meetings and sometimes altered his schedule to be in Washington for them.
Records show that he was in town for higher-profile hearings, such as whenever Attorney General John Ashcroft or FBI Director Robert Mueller were testifying. Of course, such hearings are also where members are most likely to appear on television asking questions, which can help election campaigns.
Edwards' official campaign biography on the Kerry-Edwards Internet page also proclaims, "Sen. Edwards is working every day to protect our civil liberties and our rights: standing up to radical judicial appointees like Judge (Charles) Pickering," whose confirmation was eventually blocked by a Democratic filibuster.
Records show that Edwards did show up for the hearing on Pickering and grilled him and was also on hand for hearings on nominees eventually blocked such as Miguel Estrada and Priscilla Owen.
Edwards also chaired a couple of routine confirmation hearings when Democrats controlled the committee, including one for Allyson K. Duncan, a North Carolina nominee he helped promote.
Briggs also noted that Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said last week when fielding questions about absences by Kerry and Edwards, "They're doing a great public service by running for other public office, and I respect that."Edwards serves on four committees, which is average in the Senate.