Congressional oversight of veterans affairs isn’t looking so good in light of news about the VA and delayed access to health care.
Now U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, a Democrat running for Senate in Iowa, is getting bad press for missing a large number of committee hearings.
Braley is running against Republican Joni Ernst for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Tom Harkin. But the television ad attacking him comes from Concerned Veterans for America, an advocacy group with funding linked to the Koch brothers.
Braley "skipped an astonishing 79 percent of veterans affairs committee hearings. He even skipped an important VA reform hearing to attend three fundraisers," the ad says.
That number sounded high to us, so we decided to check it out. Separately, we looked at whether he skipped a hearing to attend three fundraisers (more on that in a bit).
What did he miss?
Concerned Veterans said the missed meetings happened between 2011 and 2012 -- the years he was on the committee.
There were 21 hearings of the full committee during those two years, according to a list maintained by the U.S. Government Printing Office. We went through all 21 transcripts and found that Braley was present for only five hearings.
This means Braley missed about 76 percent of the hearings.That’s pretty close to 79 percent.
This number doesn’t give quite a full picture of Braley’s participation. He’s a member of the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, which has hearings of its own. In the same 2011-12 time frame, there were 17 subcommittee hearings, and Braley was at 15 of them.
Adding up the full committee and subcommittee hearings, Braley could have attended 38 hearings. He was present at 20 of them, which is an attendance rate of 53 percent and an absent rate of 47 percent.
Why did he miss them?
We asked Braley’s campaign why he missed so many meetings, and they pointed to several conflicting hearings and other responsibilities that explained his whereabouts for five of the full commitee hearings.
For example, on April 5, 2011, he attended a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (of which he was also a member) on the cost of postal service workers. The hearing took place at the same time as the VA committee hearing that day.
During a May 3, 2011, hearing, he was meeting with Andrew Connelly, a disabled veteran from Iowa who spoke later that day at an Economic Opportunity subcommittee hearing, where Braley was also present.
And on the morning of June 6, 2012, Braley met with another wounded veteran from Iowa at Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Virginia instead of attending a hearing.
The Concerned Veterans for America ad says he missed the meeting on Sept. 20, 2012, for three fundraisers, but we found that to be Mostly False. He was actually at an oversight committee hearing about Fast and Furious, in which federal agents traced weapons sold and brought into Mexico.
Two of the hearings -- Aug. 13, 2012, and Oct. 3, 2012 -- only had two or three representatives in attendance. The Aug. 13 hearing took place in Orlando, and the only representatives there were Chairman Jeff Miller, Corinne Brown and Gus Bilirakis -- all from Florida. On Oct. 3, the House was not in session, so many representatives were not in Washington.
Committee hearings are rarely well-attended, unless the members of Congress think it will get public attention, said Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Representatives have busy schedules and have to allocate their time accordingly. They might decide that a particular hearing is not as important as another hearing, meeting with constituents or raising money for their next campaign.
"Given that Braley has a high attendance rate for his subcommittee assignment, that strikes me as evidence of taking his committee responsibility seriously," Binder said.
Is this normal?
We wondered if it’s normal for a member of Congress to miss so many committee hearings, so we calculated the attendance ratings for all 26 members of the VA committee in 2011-12.
Eleven members, Braley included, were absent for more than 50 percent of full committee hearings. The only representative with perfect attendance was Miller, the chairman.
Here are the three representatives with attendance records as bad or worse than Braley’s:
Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., missed 76 percent;
Mark Amodei, R-Nev., missed 80 percent;
Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., missed 86 percent.
We compiled the attendance records for all 26 members, see them here.
Braley also had the highest attendance other than the chair for the Economic Opportunity subcommittee, missing only 12 percent of those hearings. Four of the subcommittee’s nine members were absent for more than 50 percent of all subcommittee hearings.
A Concerned Veterans ad said Braley "skipped an astonishing 79 percent of veterans affairs committee hearings."
When we analyzed the hearing transcripts, we found that he had missed about 76 percent of all 2011 and 2012 full committee hearings. He did, however, attend almost all of his subcommittee hearings. We rate this claim Mostly True.