For Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), the time stamp on his troubles can be found in the “Photo Album” section of his site. The grip-and-grins ended in April, when the FBI raided Renzi’s family businesses.
For Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), usually a chatterbox on the Senate floor, the speeches stopped once his arrest in a men’s room sex sting became known.
They, along with Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.), who also lost his committee post following an FBI raid, have been consigned to the Get Lost Caucus — a highly unofficial, exceedingly exclusive, nobody-chooses-to-enroll kind of club. It is four members strong, with potential for growth.
The guidelines for qualification: First, you hit a few legal snags (a raid, an indictment, an arrest), then you lose your committee assignments (or, in the case of Craig, your ranking status).
Lacking clout and commitments, you are the congressional equivalent of walking pneumonia, wounded and worn but still showing a pulse.
Their press aides argue that their bosses are plenty busy.
But with so much of the workload determined by committee posts, it raises the question: What do these guys do all day?
“Most of the power and influence you have come from your committee assignments,” said Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who worked on Capitol Hill for 31 years. “If you are the ranking member on such and such committee, you are a dominant player in determining policy. When you step down, you cease to have that influence.”
That means — gasp! — more time to focus on those who elected you.
“He has been representing Idaho in the Senate over the past week,” said Dan Whiting, Craig’s spokesman. “Clearly he has been voting. He has also been attending hearings and meetings with constituents.”
The caucus could lose him by Sunday, however, which is Craig’s self-imposed deadline for resigning his seat. Craig may stick around longer if a Minnesota judge decides Wednesday to dismiss the senator’s guilty plea on disorderly conduct charges.
Craig will hang back in Washington while his attorneys argue the case. “I’ve been advised not to [go],” Craig told reporters Tuesday. “I have very competent lawyers.”
If Craig were to survive, he would be a downsized lawmaker, hurting for the clout and staff he once enjoyed. But he would at least have committee meetings to attend, as he did Monday.
His staff promptly put out a release calling attention to the fact that Craig “called attention today to the impact wild land fires are having on the global environment in a hearing by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.”
Doolittle, Jefferson and Renzi don’t even have it that good.
Each was vanquished from his committees — a particularly harsh sentence in the House, where members receive fewer assignments than their Senate counterparts. The committees scrubbed their websites of the congressmen’s names.
“Time hangs heavy in your hands when you don’t have a committee,” said Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political science professor who has served as an adviser to several senators. “Congress is really built around committees. Committees are the armature on which everything else hangs.”
Jefferson’s career looks frozen in time on his website, with few, if any, updates since June.
His biography still touts him as an “active and senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee,” a position he lost last year after FBI agents found $90,000 in his freezer.
Ashley Wilson, Jefferson’s press secretary, takes the blame for the outdated siteShe started her job just before the August recess, she said, and hasn’t been able to post anything.
“He has been extremely busy, working hard,” Wilson said.
She ticked off the list. He’s spoken on the House floor about the recovery efforts following Hurricane Katrina. He led a delegation on a tour of the Gulf Coast and met with President Bush during his trip to Louisiana.
He attended a Small Business Committee hearing in August, even though he was forced off the committee two months earlier.
“More as an interested observer,” Wilson said of Jefferson’s involvement, correcting her earlier statement that he questioned witnesses.
Doolittle, too, has been “very busy,” his communications director Gordon Hinkle said.
His entries on “John’s Blog,” Doolittle’s Web diary, tapered off within two months of him losing his seat on the Appropriations Committee.
But at least he’s upfront about his status. His biography states that he sat on the committee only through this year.
Doolittle, whose reelection bid has yet to be endorsed by party leaders, goes on to detail his priorities for 2007: Secure Iraq and Afghanistan; reduce the size of government; reform health care, immigration policies and the Endangered Species Act; send more money to rural schools; protect soldiers fighting Islamic extremists; and make President Bush’s tax cuts permanent.
So much for lowered expectations.
As for Renzi, he must be really, really hard at work. His staff was too busy to return phone calls for comment.
Patrick O’Connor contributed to this story.