by Karl Kurtz
It's not often that arcane matters of state legislative organization and procedure enter the realm of presidential politics, but thanks to Sen. Barack Obama's relatively recent service in the Illinois Senate, it has happened twice in recent weeks.
Over on Governing's 13th Floor, Josh Goodman writes in "Now That's Harsh" about Sen. Hillary Clinton scoffing last week that Sen. Obama had been "a part-time legislator" in Illinois. After commenting on the oddity of this charge for a legislator from a state that we normally count as "full-time" (it's a relative term--see "What Happened to the 'Citizen' in the 'Citizen Legislature?'"), Josh concludes:
It seems slightly surreal to me that part-time state legislatures are a presidential campaign issue, even a minor one. If Obama responds by praising the tradition of part-time citizen lawmakers and Clinton fires back that full-time professional legislatures are essential given the complexity of contemporary state policy and the need to check the power of other branches of government, I'll know I'm dreaming.
I couldn't agree with Josh more. But I am also tempted to add this thought: Isn't any member of Congress who spends several years running for President being a part-time legislator?
And then in Monday night's Democratic debate in South Carolina, John Edwards asked Obama to explain why he had voted "present" 100 times while serving in the Illinois Senate. The public may have started yawning at this point in the debate, but in The Thicket, the land of legislative junkies, we got excited. Obama responded (like a legislative junkie) that these votes were tactical moves expressing concern about the contents of a bill without actually voting against it:
This evening NPR ran a good piece quoting our friends Rich Miller at thecapitolfaxblog and Chris Mooney of the University of Illinois at Springfield about how voting "present" is used in Illinois. For the most part they supported Obama's version of the story. [January 25 update: Daniel Vock in Stateline.org also talked to Illinois legislators of both parties about this topic who also backed Obama's statements.]
The charge has also generated a number of media calls to NCSL about other states besides Illinois that allow the practice of voting present. My colleague, Natalie O'Donnell, has been researching this question. So far she has come up with half a dozen legislative chambers that allow voting "present". Curiously, the Illinois Senate is not one of them, because the practice is not in the written rules of that body. It's a matter of custom and practice, say the legislative staffers she has talked to about this.
The chambers that allow voting "present" (other than for reasons of a conflict of interest) include the Colorado Senate (rule 17), the Delaware House (rule 26) and Senate (rule 11), the Massachusetts House (rule 52), Missouri House (rule 23) and the Texas Senate (rule 6.16). We're still checking and will update this list if we discover more.
By the way, with the withdrawal of the Toms--Tancredo, Thompson (Tommy) and Vilsack--from the presidential race, we're down to only three candidates for President who previously served in state legislatures. If you can't name them, check out our quiz on this subject a year ago.