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Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, talks with the committee's ranking member, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., center, and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., right, before the committee's hearing about Iraq on Sept. 16, 2015. (AP) Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, talks with the committee's ranking member, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., center, and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., right, before the committee's hearing about Iraq on Sept. 16, 2015. (AP)

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, talks with the committee's ranking member, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., center, and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., right, before the committee's hearing about Iraq on Sept. 16, 2015. (AP)

Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman October 1, 2018

Fact-checking Gov. Rick Scott's attack on Sen. Bill Nelson for skipping security hearings

Gov. Rick Scott portrays U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson as an "empty chair" who often skips meetings on the important topic of security.

"Nelson skipped 45 percent of the hearings on national security," said a TV ad from Scott’s campaign. "National security! Bill Nelson doesn’t write laws — he doesn’t even show up."

The ad refers to Nelson’s tenure on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Nelson is defending his seat in a close battle with Scott.

Attacks for missed hearings are common. But these attacks omit several caveats about committee attendance.

"I have never been one that put much stock in the ‘attendance’ statistics to measure a senator's work" on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Arnold Punaro, who served as the committee's Democratic staff director from 1983 to 1997.

Senate Armed Committee meetings

Scott’s campaign published a spreadsheet showing that between 2001 and 2018, Nelson missed 45 percent (or 284 out of 636) of Senate Armed Service Committee hearings. (He wasn’t on the committee in 2011-12.) The campaign said it counted full committee hearings and subcommittees on which Nelson served and was expected to attend.

Nelson’s attendance varied with each two-year congressional session, ranging from 44 percent in 2005-06 to 76 percent for the current 2017-18 session.

Scott’s campaign pulled attendance records from the Senate Armed Services Committee website and the Government Printing Office. However, attendance isn’t published for closed or classified hearings.

Since there aren’t public attendance records for all types of hearings, that means we don’t get the full picture of Nelson’s service on the committee.

Dan McLaughlin, Nelson’s spokesman, said by his count Nelson attended 104 of 126 Armed Services hearings, informal meetings, sessions and briefings — including more than two dozen that were closed or classified — in 2017-18.

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PolitiFact can’t verify the Nelson campaign’s figures since that includes meetings that lack a public attendance record.

The limits of sheer attendance

Experts on Congress agreed that a straight-up attendance record doesn’t tell us much.

"A hearing about a national security threat, for example, is much more significant than routine budget hearings the (committee) holds every fiscal year," said Georgetown University professor Joshua Huder, who studies Congress.

It is common for senators, who serve on multiple committees and subcommittees, to miss hearings. Sometimes, multiple committees will hold hearings at the same time, forcing the senator to split their time or prioritize one hearing over another.

Roll Call, a Washington publication that regularly covers Congress, wrote in 2014 that unless the senator wields the gavel, he or she may only show up for five minutes, or when it is their turn to ask questions

"The results include guffaw-inducing scenes where even senior lawmakers enter the wrong hearing room, misidentify a witness and question the wrong person on the other side of the dais," Roll Call wrote.

Our ruling

Scott said Nelson "skipped 45 percent of the hearings on national security."

The Scott campaign’s data for Nelson’s 16 years on the Senate Armed Services Committee shows he missed 284 hearings out of 636.

However, this omits that for some types of hearings there is no publicly available attendance record. This count is not perfect.

We rate this statement Mostly True.

Our Sources

Gov. Rick Scott, Empty chair ad and Armed Services Attendance record, Sept. 18, 2018

Sen. Bill Nelson website, Committees, Accessed Oct. 1, 2018

U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services, Accessed Oct. 1, 2018

Roll Call, "Why Senate Attendance Attacks Are Usually Bogus (Video)," 2014

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Ron Johnson, Russ Feingold take hits for committee attendance," Jan. 26, 2016

PolitiFact, "Thom Tillis claims Kay Hagan didn't attend half the Armed Services Committee hearings this year," Oct. 2, 2014

PolitiFact, "How many veterans affairs hearings did Bruce Braley miss?" July 30, 2014

Interview, Lauren Schenone, Gov. Rick Scott spokeswoman, Sept. 24, 2018

Interview, Bill McLaughlin, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson spokesman,  Sept. 25, 2018

Interview, Joshua Huder, Georgetown Government Affairs Institute Senior Fellow, Sept. 25, 2018

Interview, Arnold Punaro, Punaro Group and retired Marine Corps Major General and former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sept. 29, 2018

Interview Joshua Tauberer, president of Civic Impulse which created the GovTrack.us website, Sept. 25, 2018

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More by Amy Sherman

Fact-checking Gov. Rick Scott's attack on Sen. Bill Nelson for skipping security hearings

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