Anyone who has attended a Senate committee hearing recently will recognize the ritual:
The senator arrives, late and harried, and takes his seat. A clerk places the senator's nameplate on the table in front of him. The senator makes some perfunctory remarks. The committee stenographer records them. The senator excuses himself, explaining that he has two other subcommittee hearings to attend. As he slinks out a back door, his aide snatches away the nameplate as if it were a piece of incriminating evidence.
Unlikely as it may seem, this is all part of the senator's campaign for reelection.
"Committee cameos" are the current rage in the Senate. They're a shield against 1986's most dreaded television spot: the one your wise-guy opponent might run, accusing you of being unfit for public service because you missed too many floor votes or committee hearings.
Senators have long been sensitive about their attendance records, but until 1984, could never have been called obsessive about this measure of virtue. Then along came a pack of bloodhounds, and their daily routines haven't been the same since.
Yes, a pack of bloodhounds. The story, one of political Washington's instant legends, goes this way: In the early fall of 1984, Sen. Walter D. Huddleston (D-Ky.) was 35 points ahead of his Republican challenger, Mitch McConnell, in what everyone took to be a walkover of a race. In desperation, McConnell began running a funny TV ad that attacked Huddleston's attendance record by using a pack of bloodhounds to search for the missing senator.
"It was like tossing a match on a pool of gasoline," said Larry McCarthy of Ailes Communications, who wrote the ad. "All the local television stations and editorial cartoonists immediately picked up on it. It became the symbol of the race." The rest, as they say, is history.
Nowadays, Sen. McConnell in much in demand as an adviser to his fellow Republican incumbents, who want to know how they can keep themselves from falling victim to the same attack.
Not to worry, McConnell tells them. He explains that what made his spots effective was not the attendance issue per se, but the charge that Huddleston had missed floor votes on days he was out of town to give speeches for fees.
He might as well be talking to a brick wall. Senators, like generals, are determined to fight the last war; they've become purists on the subject of attendance. "I must say, I have been amused by the overreaction," says McConnell (who was not amused, however -- and was prodded into cleaning up his act -- when homestate papers got on his case last year for missing too many Agriculture Committee hearings).
If some incumbents seem slightly paranoid on the subject, the corollary is also true: That doesn't mean somebody isn't trying to do them in.
Last summer, Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) halted a Judiciary Committee hearing when he spotted a photographer taking a picture of the nameplate in front of the empty chair of his colleague, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who is up for reelection this year. When Metzenbaum asked the photographer to identify himself, he bolted out of the room and down the hall.
Democrats immediately accused their Republican friends of hiring spies to snap pictures of the very act of Democratic absenteeism, for use in future GOP attack ads. Republicans adamantly deny it. "Contrary to popular belief, we do not have anyone taking pictures of empty chairs," said Tom Griscom, director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Since that episode, though, it has become part of the job description of a Senate aide to remove the boss' nameplate once the senator leaves a meeting, lest it become the unwitting prop in a challenger's winning TV ad.
Meanwhile, the leadership of both parties have held preliminary discussions to see if some kind of cease-fire might be worked out, or short of that, if some ground rules on tallying committee attendance might be drawn up. At present, no central records are kept. In some committees, just sitting in your seat gets you marked present by the stenographer. In others, you have to say something. In any case, Republican committee staffers have long been keeping their own tabs on Democratic absenteeism, then funneling the information to their party's campaign committee. Recently, Democratic staffers have begun doing the same.
Griscom doubts there will ever be a cease-fire. "You can't control what a challenger does," he said.
So caution is the order of the day. The roll-call voting participation of the 27 incumbents up for reelection this year was 96.2 percent in 1985, up from 92.4 percent the year before. "It's not necessarily a kill issue, but it's the kind of thing that can soften an incumbent up," said Rosa DeLauro, administrative aide to Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.). "Once they make the charge, you try to respond, and suddenly they have you playing on their court."
One the other hand, some senators say they think caution can be carried too far. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) raised his voting participation from 79 percent in 1984 (when he spent part of the year running for president) to a perfect 100 percent last year. But he draws the line at racing from committee to committee.
"I tell my constituents that if they want me to make all my committee and subcommittee hearings, they need a magician, not a senator," he said. A senator might be on a dozen subcommittees, and often their hearings conflict. "If you got three hearings in one day, you can concentrate on one and do some serious legislative work, or you can do pop-in, pop-outs at all three," said one Democratic aide, "in which case, you're not really serving anybody."
Moreover, the quickie appearance can produce its share of small embarrassments. Last year, Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) arrived in the middle of a Foreign Relations Committee hearing and saw a familiar face, former Central Intelligence Agency deputy director Bobby R. Inman, at the witness table.
Cranston quickly chimed in to say he would be delighted to support Inman's nomination.
Inman, taken aback, thanked the senator, but explained that he wasn't up for any government post. He was testifying about embassy security.
But who said democracy was pretty?