WASHINGTON - In the office of each member of the House of Representatives is a special clock that rings to announce when a vote is called.
In his dozen years representing Pennsylvania's Second Congressional District, Democratic Rep. Chaka Fattah has failed to answer the bell more than any other area member of Congress.
Beginning with the 105th Congress, which opened in 1997, Fattah has missed an average of 9.2 percent of votes cast. The average for all members of Congress in that period is about 4.2 percent.
This year, he has missed 10 of 102 votes in the 110th Congress, or 9.8 percent.
Rep. Robert A. Brady, who like Fattah is running for the Democratic nomination for mayor of Philadelphia, has missed an average of 4.3 percent of votes since he won a special congressional election in 1998.
Fattah said through a spokesman that he had been present for 91 percent of all roll-call votes, and for 95.6 percent of all votes identified by Congressional Quarterly as key votes.
Fattah said he had never missed a roll-call vote where his ballot alone would have changed the outcome of the vote.
"I take all of my responsibilities as a member of Congress very seriously," he said in a statement. "Nevertheless, there are occasions in which my commitment to my constituents requires that I be in places other than Washington.
"I have never missed a vote that would have altered the final passage of a bill passing on the House floor."
According to an examination of Fattah's record on key votes as defined by Congressional Quarterly, Fattah missed seven votes out of 159 from 1995 through 2006 for a 95.6 voting percentage.
Of the more than 1,000 votes each year in the House, 10 to 15 are key votes.
G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, said: "I think this is an opening for Chaka's opponents, because it's something that can create a chink in his armor and be used to pull him back into the pack. At 90 percent [voting], I don't think this is a deal-breaker. But it's going to get him to have to defend his congressional record."
"The argument that can be made is not showing up for work," Madonna added. "Typically, that argument is effective in political campaigns."
Philadelphia political consultant Larry Ceisler, who is not involved in the mayoral campaign, agreed that Fattah's "opponents will probably try to draw a connection between this and political commitment." But, he added, "I don't know if it's something voters pay attention to."
Congressional expert Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution think tank said he was "surprised to hear" of Fattah's voting record, because "he has struck me as able and energetic."
He said a high rate of absenteeism was "usually associated with illness, or candidacy for another office."
Mann said that absenteeism could be considered "an indicator of engagement and seriousness of engagement in the job."
Until this year, when Democrats took over Congress and imposed a more rigorous work schedule, votes were largely held between late Tuesday afternoon and midday Thursday, when members are usually in Washington.
"It's not as if they were strung out over a five-day workweek," Mann said.
Members who have to travel long distances are also more prone to miss votes.
Former Rep. Ron Klink (D., Pa.) missed nearly 23 percent of the votes during the 106th Congress in 2000, when he was running for the Senate against Republican incumbent Rick Santorum.
Klink, who is now a lobbyist, said running for another elected office was usually an accepted reason for missing votes.
Fattah missed part of a marathon session in the House in December, choosing to attend the Pennsylvania Society weekend, an annual gathering in New York City for Pennsylvania politicians. "I'm here rather than elsewhere because I intend to be the next mayor of Philadelphia," he told The Inquirer as the House met.
Brady, who was not yet a mayoral candidate, stayed in Washington.
Klink said, "It all depends on the significance of the votes; there are some that you can miss."
Commenting generally, without knowing the names of any specific members, Klink said that a 10-year period of missing nearly one in 10 votes "is a long period of time over which to accumulate that record of absenteeism."
Fattah serves on the powerful Appropriations Committee, which doles out money for infrastructure projects important to local constituents. Absences may impinge on a Congress member's effectiveness in committee work, Mann said.
Since 1995, House records show, Fattah missed at least 11 votes on appropriations, including the military-construction authorization bill for fiscal 2007.
Still, Mann noted, absenteeism by itself is not a hard indicator "of disengagement from the job."
The congressional analyst said that he also took into account a member's committee work, as well as efforts to build support for legislative initiatives, the development of skills to cope with being in the political minority, and the extent to which the member was considered a player by party leaders.
Since entering the House in January 1995, Fattah has had no serious primary or general-election challenge.
of fence along Mexican border: No
or degrading treatment of military prisoners: Yes
SOURCE: Congressional Quarterly EndText