This past week, in the first of two GOP U.S. Senate debates, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, went on at some length about the votes missed in the Utah Senate by one of his main challengers, former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist, R-Bountiful.
Hatch’s campaign staff finds that Liljenquist missed 25 percent of his floor votes in the 2011 Legislature.
I’ll accept that missed-vote number from Hatch. And reply, so what?
I’m not supporting Liljenquist, nor opposing Hatch. But as a forced student of more than 30 Utah legislative general sessions, I do know something about legislative voting patterns.
While not an expert on Congressional voting, I do know something about those floor votes, as well.
And the two – the U.S. and the Utah senates – are very different animals.
For example, for most of the 45-day Utah general session the 29-member Senate takes two floor votes on each bill or resolution.
Under the state Constitution, each bill in order to pass must be “read” three times. In the old days, I’m guessing, this was done so that no bill could be introduced and passed in one day and thus the wool pulled over citizens’ eyes.
The larger 75-member Utah House only has one official “reading,” or vote, per bill.
But the state Senate, who professes to be the more deliberative body, votes once on second reading and again on third reading, or final passage.
Thus, each floor session, the Senate votes on bills on the second reading calendar (the first official vote) and then votes on the same bills the on the next day’s floor session, the third reading.
A number of senators routinely miss the second reading calendar votes, since they will have a vote on the final, third reading calendar.
Now, in the crush of the final several days of each general session, the state Senate usually does away with the two readings and only votes once on each bill – as the state House always does.
But as you can see with all these second and third reading votes, it is much easier for a state senator to miss one or the other vote.
Aside from the basic voting structure, there is also the fact that Utah’s Senate is one of the smallest upper bodies in the 50 states.
With just 29 members, state senators are often off the floor meeting with constituents (yes, often these constituents are lobbyists or other special interests, but lobbyists and special interests are constituents, too.)
And, especially on difficult, wide-ranging legislation, senators are meeting with House members, aides to the governor or fellow senators over controversial and complicated legislation, trying to work out compromises.
The main budget chairs are frequently off the floor working out financing problems.
Because the Utah Senate is so small in numbers, every GOP senator is also a committee chairman of one kind or another.
So besides their regular work on their bills, they are setting standing committee or budget sub-committee agendas and so on.
Now, Congress and the U.S. Senate works at a much slower pace than does the Utah Legislature and state Senate.
Congressional votes are taken Tuesdays through Thursdays, usually at set times, and the voting is kept open for minutes at a time in order to allow all 100 senators a chance to cast a voice vote.
The U.S. Senate may have a dozen of votes a day, when the workload gets crunched up.
Congratulations to Hatch who says he has a 90 percent voting record in his 36 years in the U.S. Senate. That’s a great voting record.
However, by comparison, the Utah Senate may take a hundred of votes a day in the final days of the drop-dead 45-day general session.
If a Utah senator is off the floor for 10 minutes he could miss five or 10 votes, they come so quickly.
Hatch’s complaints about Liljenquist missing a quarter of his votes reminds me (the old dog I am) of the 1974 U.S. Senate race between then-Salt Lake City Mayor Jake Garn, a Republican, and the late Democratic U.S. Rep. Wayne Owens.
Owens took out full-page ads in the local newspapers (a big deal back then) accusing Garn of missing nearly all of the meetings of the Salt Lake City Planning and Zoning Commission, of which the mayor was a member.
Yes, indeed, Garn didn’t go to the planning commission. The mayor never goes to the commission meetings, he sends an aide.
The mayor got his say when the whole City Commission voted on planning issues later in the process.
Owens’ attacks on Garn stuck at first.
But as the campaign wore on, Utahns learned about how the mayor never went to zoning commission meetings and Owens started looking foolish.
Pro-Hatch super PACs have been running TV ads criticizing Liljenquist’s state Senate voting record. And Hatch himself criticized Liljenquist over the issue in the first debate.
Hatch would be wise to find some other issue to take Liljenquist to task over.
I don’t know if the 4,000 GOP state delegates – who will get a shot at the U.S. Senate race in the fast-approaching April 21 state party convention – will get educated on the voting patterns of the U.S. and Utah senates.
If they do, they would learn that comparing U.S. Senate and Utah Senate voting attendance is not the best example of either Hatch’s or Liljenquist’s innate abilities as lawmakers.
Liljenquist certainly could have done better in his state Senate voting record.
But I don’t know of any Utah legislator who systematically ignores his or her duty.
Indeed, every session Hatch and other Utah congressmen address the Utah House and Senate and without exception all praise the work of the 104 part-time state lawmakers, and say how the U.S. House and Senate could learn from Utah’s legislative example.
Criticizing an opponent is fair play. But Hatch should learn from Owens’ failed 1974 U.S. Senate campaign and find something more substantial to separate himself from Liljenquist.