We send these people to Washington to do one main job: to vote on bills to make them laws. For example, in the 115th Congress, 33 Representatives and three Senators missed 10% or more of votes, across both parties.

Why is it that they do not show up to vote for so many of them? Why does no one ever say anything about this?

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    Please be more specific about what types of votes you are talking about. Are you referring just to floor votes or are you also including committee votes as well?
    – Joe W
    Commented Oct 8, 2020 at 16:22
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    You should put that in your question.
    – Joe W
    Commented Oct 9, 2020 at 1:25
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    You ought to provide some citation on this if we're going to properly analyze the reason behind it - but there's a good chance some of the votes you're referring to are not highly contested votes (Re-naming post offices and stuff like that) and therefore don't actually require the attention of all our congressional representatives at once.
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Oct 9, 2020 at 19:30
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    I edited to add the info people were asking about, although I'd question if the rates I included are "so many." Maybe you had other figures in mind? Commented Oct 9, 2020 at 20:15
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    I don't know much about the practical organization of voting in Congress, but in the UK parliament there is a more-or-less-officially-sanctioned system of "pairing," where equal numbers of MPs in the two main parties can agree to miss a routine and non-critical vote, with no practical effect on the outcome.
    – alephzero
    Commented Oct 10, 2020 at 1:44

6 Answers 6


It depends on which votes we're talking about.

Votes happen on the House and Senate floor. But they also happen in committees and subcommittees. Most of the actual work of being a legislator happens in committee and subcommittee hearings and conferences where bills are being crafted. If you want to have a meaningful influence on legislation, it's much more useful to refine it in committee away from cameras than to offer amendments on the floor in front of he cameras.

At any given time, there are several committees and subcommittees having hearings and conferences. Each legislator serves on multiple committees and there is no practical way to schedule hearing such that everyone can be present every time. So legislators are constantly juggling which meetings to attend and which to skip. Plus there are items that come up for floor votes in the middle of these meetings. Legislators have to prioritize which votes are most important (either because the vote is in doubt or because the subject matter is important to them). That necessarily means that they'll be missing votes on minor procedural issues or on matters whose outcome is certain.

Additionally, legislators are supposed to be talking with constituents, with their staff, and with others in government, etc. in order to be able to make informed votes. Some of this can happen in the evenings after regular business is done but there are only so many hours in a day. So, again, legislators need to prioritize.

Plus, politicians miss votes in order to do things like campaign. And when they do, they are absolutely called out on it. In 2016 when he was running for President, Rubio missed roughly a third of his votes and that was an issue. In 2008, Hillary Clinton dinged Obama for voting "present" too often.


One could say that the real job of a representative is to sit in committees, and to prepare for committees, and to pour over budget proposals. By the time an issue reaches the floor of the House or Senate, usually the real work is long done.

The job is also to listen to constituents, to understand their problems, and to find allies to make the solutions happen. Those hour-long luncheons can be hard work.

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    Many many years ago, when I visited my state's legislature in high school, the tour guide explained to us that the people sitting in the plenum are the ones not currently working, and all the empty seats are the ones who are currently off in committees working. Commented Oct 9, 2020 at 6:03
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    Likely story lol
    – Rick A
    Commented Oct 9, 2020 at 14:31
  • @RickA, by the time the bill reaches the floor it is to late to trade their vote for concessions -- concessions for their constituents if the representative is honest, concessions for their donors otherwise.
    – o.m.
    Commented Oct 9, 2020 at 15:50

For example, in the 115th Congress, 33 Representatives and three Senators missed 10% or more of votes, across both parties.

This isn't too bad. So, 97 Senators and 402 Representatives miss less than 10% of floor votes. The median percentage of missed votes was 1.0% in the U.S. Senate and 2.6% in the House.

Also, keep in mind that if you are in the minority party in the House, the odds that your vote will be outcome determinative are nearly zero. Sixteen of the 33 Representatives who missed more than 10% of the votes were Republicans who were in the minority and lost when then voted differently from the Democratic majority pretty much 100% of the time. Two of the three Senators who missed more than 10% of the votes were Democrats, who were in the minority in that chamber.

Most measures are adopted with supermajority support (and the parties sometimes agree to have offsetting absences so that absence don't effect which party has a majority).

Furthermore, in any group of this size, there are going to be some people who suffer a serious illness for some period of time who must unavoidably miss a significant number of votes.

Elijah Cummings, for example, who missed the most votes in the House, did so mostly because he died two and a half months before his term expired, because he was hospitalized for two months during his final term for heart surgery and recovery from it, and because he missed a few more days for knee surgery. You really can't really fault a guy for missing some votes for reasons like those.

Sometimes members are running for other offices. For example, Jared Polis, a Democrat who missed 14.5% of his House votes, was running for Governor in his home state of Colorado near the end of his term (and won).

There may be isolated individuals who are serious offenders in terms of missing votes that actually made a difference, but it isn't a huge issue based on these statistics.

Of course, the bottom line is that the only way a member of Congress can be removed is by the voters once every two years in the House and once every six years in the Senate (in a usually quite safe district where an incumbent almost automatically wins a primary election), or by a two-thirds majority of his or her own chamber (which almost never happens).

Quite a few of the members of Congress with lots of missed votes were not re-elected. Once a member announced his or her retirement, loses of primary election, or loses the general election and is a lame duck, even the voters cannot hold that individual accountable.

So, there is really no way to punish someone, if they don't stray too far from reasonable participation without a good excuse (as determined by same party colleagues) for not doing so.

  • 4
    Perhaps worth adding that each party has someone keeping track of who's going to be there for which vote to make sure they don't unexpected lose a vote, especially on something important. (In parliamentary systems like Canada's, this job also includes letting party members know when they're expected to follow the party's position on a vote, vs. when they can vote freely. The position is called the party whip. At least I think tracking expected attendance would be part of the whip's job.) Commented Oct 10, 2020 at 9:46

Sometimes a Senator or Representative would not want their views on a topic to be a matter of record, which it would be if a vote were recorded. For example if it is a topic that could be used against them in their next re-election campaign. So they'll make sure they're not available when the vote is taken.


When I took a tour of the German Bundestag sometime around 2007, this issue was addressed albeit in a Germany-centred manner. The tour guide (a parliament employee) stated that a lot of the times the plenum would be barely filled with MP’s conducting all sorts of business either in their offices or elsewhere in the parliament complex. Usually, when a vote on the floor is called it is clear how the members of the various parties will vote. In fact, the Bundestag rules say that if all present members of a single caucus vote the same way on an issue then the vote is recorded as if the entire caucus had voted that way. The vast majority of votes are decided along party lines in this manner. (On special occasions or contested issues, a vote by name would be called. A bell would ring all MP’s to the chamber where they would put their name card into one of three boxes for yes, no or abstention. In that case, only the votes of those who actually drop their card counts so there is a large scramble.)

The work the MP’s do during plenary week other than sitting in the plenum is arguably more important than actually sitting there, listening to speeches whose contents they already know (‘By the time a bill is voted on in the third reading, I can hold the speeches of all five parties because I know exactly what the respective members will say’ an MP once told me) and then voting in a way already expected. They spend time drafting bills, drafting questions to the government, receiving and replying to requests from their constituencies, consult with lobbyists (yes, that is not a bad thing per se), do committee work, sometimes party work, outreach, press interviews and more.

At one point the tour guide drew a comparison to the Reichstag in Nazi Germany.

At the time, the seats would usually be filled because obviously the MP’s had nothing to do.

I love the essence of that quote and I believe it’s all you need to know.


Since we are talking about the U.S., one of the most important time-sinks seems to be missing here: Fundraising.
The amount of time that members of congress spend on the phone calling donors is mindboggling. There are plenty of resources and articles about that topic, here is just one example.

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