(Orig. published May 13, 2012) Congressman Frank Lucas of Oklahoma was looking for South Dakota Rep. Kristi Noem. He wasn’t finding her.
Lucas, the Republican chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, had convened a meeting June 23, 2011. Earlier in the month, Noem had won an appointment to the committee and Lucas was trying to introduce her to the other members.
But as he scanned the committee room, he didn’t see Noem, according to video footage of the meeting.
“Today,” he said, “I’d like to welcome one of our new members, Congresswoman Kristi Noem from South Dakota, who joins us…” Lucas looked around again. “Shortly.” Laughter was audible in the video.
“Ms. Noem,” Lucas continued, “is a lifelong rancher, so she enjoys practical experience and firsthand knowledge of farm life and will bring that to our discussions. I know she will. I am confident she’ll be a strong voice for farmers and ranchers, and I’ll simply note that he’s gotten here in time to be a part of the process.”
But the South Dakota Democratic Party contends that Noem hasn’t been a strong voice for farmers and ranchers, at least not on the House Agriculture Committee.
Of 20 committee and subcommittee meetings held since Noem’s appointment in June 2011, South Dakota Democratic Chairman Ben Nesselhuf said she’s attended four.
The state party reviewed transcripts of committee hearings and video of the meetings to compile the attendance record.
“This is a fireable offense,” Nesselhuf said. “I can think of no job in South Dakota where you could show up for one in five times and still be employed.”
Noem’s office did not reply to requests for comment on this story. She is up for re-election in November and will face either Matt Verilek or Jeff Barth, who are campaigning for the Democrat nomination for the House.
Compiling attendance records from committee and subcommittee meetings can be tricky. No official attendance sheet is available to the public for many meetings. Video archives do not necessarily show whether a member might have been in a meeting.
Daniel Schuman, policy counsel for the Sunlight Foundation, a group that advocates for greater transparency in government, said compiling attendance records for meetings can be difficult. Members often have concurrent meetings and will jump from one obligation to another.
“Generally, they have to be there for votes,” he said, “and people will fly in and fly out.” In 2010, when Republicans took control of the House, part of their
plan to bring greater transparency to the chamber included posting official attendance of committee meetings. But according to Politico, Republicans voted Jan. 4, 2011, to abandon that plan. They did so on a voice vote, meaning there’s no record of how the members voted.
That decision can cut two ways: It can shield members from public scrutiny who don’t attend meetings. Or it can make it appear that members weren’t at a meeting when in fact they were. Norman Ornstein, who studies Congress for the American Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank, said members of the Senate tend to have more committee assignments, up to six in some cases. That means they can have a dozen subcommittee assignments. Meetings can run
concurrently, and it’s not uncommon for senators to pop in and out of meetings.
House members typically have one or two assignments, and three at the most. The norm, Ornstein said, is for House members to attend meetings in which bills are being finalized. A member who chronically is absent from significant committee hearings is “someone who is behaving more like a show horse and not a workhorse,” he said.
“Attendance records at committee meetings don’t mean a damn thing,” he said. “You can show up for 30 seconds and make it look like you were there.”
When Noem started in Congress, she initially was not on the Agriculture Committee, having instead been assigned to the education and natural resources committees. It was the first time in 30 years South Dakota hadn’t been represented on the committee.
Then, in June 2011, Noem won a third assignment on agriculture. At the time, she said her seat on the committee would ensure that South Dakota’s interests were represented in the reauthorization of the farm bill, which is ongoing.
Within the agriculture assignment, Noem serves on the conservation, energy and forestry subcommittee, the livestock dairy and poultry subcommittee and the department operations, oversight and credit subcommittee.
Of six conservation subcommittee meetings, there’s a record of Noem attending only one, Democrats say. A record shows her at a livestock meeting. That came April 26 when she was being profiled by a network news channel. Of nine full committee meetings, there is record of her in two.
Even if she was missed by the video cameras, or only attended parts of meetings — which is common for members of Congress, experts maintain — Noem has appeared in transcripts once, Nesselhuf said.
“We know for a fact that she’s made one comment,” he said. “That is a fact. We can see that in the transcripts.”
Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said it’s often difficult to track who is in a committee meeting.
“If they’re speaking out and they’re in the transcripts, then you know they’re there,” he said. “But not all members speak out.”
There is no rule, Sabato added, about attendance at the meetings. But attendance has been used in campaigns against incumbents. “You can be sure that will be used against her in a future campaign,” Sabato predicted. “That’s the price you pay for missing.”