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Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., questions Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, Aug. 6, 2020. (Washington Post via AP) Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., questions Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, Aug. 6, 2020. (Washington Post via AP)

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., questions Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing, Aug. 6, 2020. (Washington Post via AP)

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson August 31, 2020

Fact-checking John James on Gary Peters’ committee attendance

If Your Time is short

• James has offered accurate percentages, but they are cherry-picked because they ignore multiple other measurements of Peters’ activities that indicate a high level of engagement. 

• Peters holds several other influential committee assignments, had a perfect record on floor votes in 2019, and has earned high scores for effectiveness from independent academic analyses.

In the race for one of the few vulnerable Senate seats held by a Democrat this year, Republican John James is targeting Michigan Sen. Gary Peters as an ineffective, "invisible" incumbent.

A recent campaign ad, distilled this argument, which James has echoed elsewhere

"They call him the invisible man, the politician known for doing nothing, Gary Peters. Nothing to prepare us for covid. His responsibility. Nothing for our economy. Peters doesn’t show up for work. Skipped 84% of small business hearings. Nothing to protect workers. Skipped 89% of hearings on China. But Peters has done one thing: Got rich in public office. Doubled his wealth. Gary Peters: Invisible for Michigan"

Poor committee attendance is a time-worn argument by challengers, one we have seen many times before.

Here, we’ll look at James’ assertion that Peters is "known for doing nothing" and that he "skipped 84% of small business hearings (and) skipped 89% of hearings on China."

Where the numbers come from

Peters served three terms in the House, then was elected to the Senate in 2014. He is seeking a second term this year, against James, a West Point graduate and Army combat veteran. James ran for the Senate in 2018 but lost to Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow.

James’ campaign staff said the numbers refer to Peters’ service on the House Small Business Committee and the Congressional Executive Commission on China, which he joined as a senator in 2015.

Committee attendance statistics are not easily accessible; determining them requires scrutinizing transcripts of dozens of committee hearings, some of them made public months after the hearing, to see whether a lawmaker participated. The James campaign said they found that Peters missed 43 of the 51 Small Business Committee hearings in 2011 and 2012, when he was serving in the House and before he was elected to the Senate.

As for the China commission, the James campaign said it used the same method and found that Peters missed 16 of 18 meetings since Peters joined the committee. (Here are all the hearings with links, courtesy of the James campaign.)

How illuminating are these numbers?

When we contacted Peters’ campaign, they didn’t dispute the James campaign’s numbers. But they said the figures amount to cherry-picked metrics of Peters’ level of engagement in Washington.

For starters, they said the Small Business Committee attendance rate references activities nearly a decade ago. During his three terms in the House, Peters was also a member of the House Financial Services Committee, a more powerful panel.

"A lot of committees will schedule hearings at the same time, making it virtually impossible to attend, in a meaningful sense, all of them," said Joshua Huder, a Georgetown University political scientist.

Roll Call, a Washington publication that 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 focus on committee attendance also overlooks that Peters co-sponsored the Small Business Jobs Act, which eased access to credit by small businesses and was signed into law by President Barack Obama.

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A closer look at the China panel

Currently, in the Senate, Peters serves on the Armed Services Committee, the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. 

Each of those committees is considered influential, yet it’s notable that the ad focuses on the China panel, which is not a traditional congressional committee and does not generate or approve legislation. 

The panel was created in 2000 to monitor China's compliance with international human rights standards, to encourage the development of the rule of law in China, and to maintain a list of victims of human rights abuses in China. It is charged with submitting an annual report to the president. Fox News reported that "many of the members of the commission ... had spotty attendance at the commission's hearings."

Steven S. Smith, a political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, said the China panel is "a different kind of creature."

"It exists to monitor activity in China, which is largely done by staff," Smith said. He added that the Trump administration has not filled the five seats that are reserved for presidential appointees. 

Peters missed zero floor votes in 2019

There’s also another metric to gauge how active Peters has been in the Senate: The percentage of floor votes missed.

In 2019, the most recent full year available, Peters missed exactly zero floor votes, which put him in a 16-way tie for the best vote attendance in the chamber. Peters’ 100% voting rate was equal to that of the chambers’ two leaders, Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Chuck Schumber, D-N.Y.

That record "indicates that Sen. Peters was on the job," Smith said.

Finally, Peters has received high marks for effectiveness from the Center for Effective Lawmaking, an independent institution run by Vanderbilt University and the University of Virginia.

During the 2017-18 congressional year, the center ranked Peters as the fourth-most effective Democrat out of 48 in the chamber. The measurement is based on the bills lawmakers sponsor, how far those bills move through the legislative process, and how significant their policy proposals are. Intra-party comparisons are the most reliable, since there’s a major difference in clout between a majority senator and a minority senator.

"Despite his minority-party status, he was very active in navigating a number of legislative items through the Republican-controlled Senate," Alan Wiseman, the center’s co-director, told the Michigan Advance. "His success in advancing his legislative agenda in the 115th Congress is greater than one would expect, given his relatively low seniority in the Senate."

Meanwhile, the Lugar Center and Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy rated Peters third among Democratic senators, and 12th overall, in bipartisanship in 2019.

Our ruling

James said that Peters is "known for doing nothing. … (Peters) skipped 84% of small business hearings (and) skipped 89% of hearings on China."

The percentages are accurate, but they are cherry-picked because they ignore multiple other measurements that indicate a high level of engagement by Peters in Washington, including recent influential committee assignments, a perfect record on floor votes, and high scores on effectiveness from independent academic analyses.

We rate the statement Mostly False.

Our Sources

John James, campaign ad, Aug. 26, 2020

John James, campaign ad, Aug. 26, 2020

John James, list of hearings with links, provided to PolitiFact Aug. 19, 2020

Center for Effective Lawmaking, 2017-2018 effectiveness ratings, accessed Aug. 31, 2020

Govtrack.us, "2019 Report Cards: All Senators / Missed Votes," accessed Aug. 31, 2020

Lugar Center-McCourt School Bipartisan Index, 2019 Senate scores, accessed Aug. 31, 2020

Congress.gov, "H.R. 5297, Small Business Jobs Act (2010)" main index page

Michigan Advance, "Group names Peters 4th-most effective U.S. Senate Democrat," March 7, 2019

Roll Call, "Why Senate Attendance Attacks Are Usually Bogus," Oct. 8, 2014

Fox News, "Michigan Senate candidates take tough stances on China amid coronavirus," May 14, 2020

Email interview with Steven S. Smith, political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, Aug. 28, 2020

Email interview with Craig Volden, co-director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking, Aug. 28, 2020

Email interview with Joshua Huder, Georgetown University political scientist, Aug. 28, 2020

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