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The Obscure Caucus: Privileges for Members — Anonymity, Longevity

Perhaps one of the best indicators of a Member’s obscurity is how long it takes for a C-SPAN producer to identify him when he begins speaking on the House floor.

There are those Members whose names go up within seconds of them beginning to speak. (Here’s looking at you Barney Frank and Sheila Jackson Lee.) And then there are those like Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), who is making his debut in the Obscure Caucus.

When Crenshaw took to the floor to begin addressing an appropriations bill in July, it took a while for C-SPAN to identify him — as freshman Rep. Michael McMahon (D-N.Y.).

The network quickly pulled that down and replaced it with Crenshaw’s correct identification, but by that point the Congressman was wrapping up his remarks.

As we watched this, we knew then and there that Crenshaw — a five-term Congressman who was mistaken for a freshman — was Obscure Caucus bound.

In fact, we’re kinda embarrassed that we missed him last time around.

The ranks of the Obscure Caucus have taken a big hit since we last published this list in 2007. Two Members, Alabama Reps. Bud Cramer (D) and Terry Everett (R), retired. Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) is now the ranking member on the Agriculture Committee, a post that, in theory, should boost his visibility (though we haven’t seen much evidence thus far).

Perhaps most notably absent from the list this time are Reps. Wally Herger (R-Calif.) and Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.), whom we awarded the lifetime Obscure Caucus achievement award in 2003 because they were the only two holdovers from 1994 on that list. The Obscure Caucus was published from 1990 to 1994 and in 2003 and 2007.

Visclosky and Herger also made the 2007 list, but in the two years since, they have shattered their obscurity.

Visclosky’s office has been subpoenaed as part of a Justice Department investigation of the PMA Group lobbying firm. The Justice Department is reportedly looking into campaign contributions from the firm and earmarks that the firm’s clients received.

Herger dramatically increased his visibility on the Hill last Congress when he mounted an uphill campaign to become the ranking member on the Ways and Means Committee. But Herger was passed over for the post in favor of Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), who is two terms his junior in seniority. During his bid Herger increased his visibility on the floor and even formed a political action committee.

Again this time, all 10 members of the caucus are males, and all but one are white. Even though Congress has become more diverse, the only female to ever make the list was then-Rep. Jan Meyers (R-Kan.) in 1993.

Reps. Timothy Johnson (R-Ill.) and Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) are the only holdovers from our 2007 caucus. However, one Member is making a return to the caucus this year, after a brief hiatus in 2007: Rep. John Olver (D-Mass.).

Before going any further we should make clear that membership in the Obscure Caucus is by no means a form of mockery or criticism. In general, Members who make the cut are routinely described as workhorses, not show horses. They aren’t necessarily backbenchers, but more often members of A-List committees who choose to shun the spotlight despite the power that they wield. As we’ve noted in the past, they pay strict attention to parochial issues and would much rather attend a hog-calling contest back home than appear on a cable news show. They tend to represent safe seats, and their ability to bring home the bacon is amply rewarded every two years with large re-election margins.

Although determining the membership of the caucus is in many ways a subjective exercise, we do have some long-established criteria. Members must have served at least two full terms, and retiring Members are not eligible. Only House Members are eligible for consideration because Senators by their very nature and number are not obscure.

Visibility on the floor is one of the key factors in deciding membership.

For example, Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-Texas) had just 14 references so far this Congress in the Congressional Record prior to the August recess, the least of any member of the caucus. Of those 14, nine were extensions of remarks.

To put that number in perspective, Jackson Lee had 287 references before the recess.

But just because they aren’t making speeches on the floor doesn’t mean that Obscure Caucus members aren’t working hard for their constituents. Johnson had just 17 references in the Congressional Record, but nine of those were earmark declarations — a clear sign that he’s bringing home the bacon.

Without further ado, the 2009 Obscure Caucus (in alphabetical order, of course):

Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.)
5th term
2008 re-election: 65 percent

Crenshaw was one of three Members who tied for the distinction of introducing the least legislation in the 110th Congress. He introduced two bills (as did Georgia Republican Rep. John Linder and Florida Republican Rep. Bill Young).

Crenshaw is 6 foot 4 inches tall and played basketball in college, but as the 2008 Almanac of American Politics points out, “although his tall frame makes him hard to miss in a crowd, he has not sought attention.—

In the House, he has largely focused on military and veterans issues from his perch on the Appropriations Committee, which he won a seat on in just his second term.

Of the 23 references to Crenshaw in the Congressional Record so far this Congress, nine of them are earmark declarations.

The Floridian has lost three bids for statewide office in his career, but he is also a former state Senate president. In 1993 he became the first Republican to preside over the body in 118 years.

After serving as senior class president at Robert E. Lee High School, Crenshaw — who’s first name is short for Alexander — became the third member of his family to letter in a sport for the Georgia Bulldogs.

His wife is the daughter of former Florida Gov. Claude Kirk Jr. (R).

Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.)
12th term
2008 re-election: 58 percent

Gallegly almost made the Obscure Caucus cut last time, but we kept him off the list because he had just floated his own name as a potential candidate in California’s 2003 gubernatorial recall election. Gallegly briefly got into the race and then pulled out a few days later.

More bizarrely, Gallegly announced in 2006 that he would not seek re-election because of health problems. Five days later, under pressure from party leaders who were worried they might lose the seat, Gallegly reversed course and said he would run again.

But since then little has been heard from him, and he seems to have comfortably settled back into obscurity.

Of his 33 mentions in the Congressional Record so far this Congress, 20 are extensions of remarks.

Earlier this decade, he was passed over for the chairmanship of the Resources Committee in favor of fellow Californian Richard Pombo (R), who had less seniority.

In his first campaign for Congress in 1986, Gallegly beat Tony Hope — Bob Hope’s son — in the GOP primary.

Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.)
3rd term
2008 re-election: 74 percent

He got plenty of attention from Washington, D.C., insiders when he first ran in a very competitive open-seat election in 2004. And if you follow the Buffalo media, he’s there pretty regularly, weighing in on local development projects and political wars.

But here, Higgins has all but faded into the woodwork and is now just another pretty face. He seems to be following the path of an Obscure Caucus alumnus from the Empire State who also came from a politically wired family and served in a variety of state and local offices before coming to Congress: recently retired Rep. Mike McNulty (D-N.Y.). McNulty had a long and productive Congressional career, and it seems likely that Higgins will do the same. Probably his biggest political worry is redistricting because New York is expected to lose one or even two House seats after the 2010 Census. Higgins’ particular problem: Back when he was in the state Assembly in 2000, he participated in an attempted coup against the Speaker, Sheldon Silver (D). And Silver is still Speaker.

Rep. Timothy Johnson (R-Ill.)
5th term
2008 re-election: 64 percent

We had some reservations about including Johnson in the caucus again this time (he is one of two holdovers from 2007).

While he may not be the most obscure Member on the list, he is by far the most eccentric.

“Johnson doesn’t make many headlines, concentrating mainly on serving his constituents,— according to CQ’s Politics in America 2010. “Even so, he manages to distinguish himself on Capitol Hill. He is a familiar figure when the House is in session, walking purposefully through corridors with a cell phone held to his ear.—

Since being elected to the state Legislature three decades ago, Johnson has made daily personal calls to the residents of his district at a rate of about 200 a day.

Johnson has gained press attention and notoriety for literally reaching out and touching so many of his constituents, but we just couldn’t see pulling him from the list.

Johnson’s other well-publicized oddity is his eating habits. He eats the same thing every day: fruit, rice cakes, granola, vitamin supplements, juice and farmer’s cheese, according to Politics in America. He is also a fitness buff and can often be seen in the House gym working out while making constituent phone calls.

Johnson has seats on the Agriculture and Transportation and Infrastructure committees, which fit well with the needs of his largely rural constituency.

Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-Texas)
3rd term
2008 re-election: 56 percent

Marchant is on the list, but it just as easily could be a handful of other Texas Republicans who keep a low profile, like Reps. John Culberson, Randy Neugebauer and Mac Thornberry. All would be tough to pick out of a lineup.

By his own admission, Marchant, a millionaire businessman, is a quiet guy. “I’ve never been much of an orator,— he once said, estimating that when he served in the Texas Legislature he gave eight speeches in 18 years. He seems on track to match that record in Congress.

Marchant was one of the least active Members legislatively last Congress. He only introduced four bills.

Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine)
4th term
2008 re-election: 67 percent

Michaud seemed ticketed for stardom when he arrived in 2003. After all, his profile as a mill-worker-turned-state-Senate-president was irresistible. But while he’s quietly been associated with various populist fights since coming to Congress — some of which seemed like lost causes, especially when George W. Bush was president — he’s about as anonymous as the massive rural district he represents. Still, as a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, he’s a very important player in his state.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.)
5th term
2008 re-election: 70 percent

Miller is among the holdovers from the 2007 caucus. With 59 references in the Congressional Record, Miller is among the more active members of the caucus when it comes to the House floor.

According to the 2008 Almanac of American Politics, Miller has “a reputation for being soft-spoken and a good listener.—

Miller won a 2001 special election after Rep. Joe Scarborough (R) resigned. (Scarborough, of course, is a much bigger deal now that he’s a TV host than he ever was in Congress.) Like Crenshaw, Miller focuses on military and veterans issues, which are important to his Panhandle constituency.

In high school, he was a radio disc jockey, and his résumé also includes stints as a deputy county sheriff and part-time gigs as a stock car racer and auctioneer.

In college, he was president of the fraternity system.

Rep. John Olver (D-Mass.)
10th term
2008 re-election: 73 percent

Olver won a 1991 special election while billing himself as “a workhorse, not a show horse,— and he has lived up to that reputation in his almost two decades in Congress.

The 2008 Almanac of American Politics notes: “Outside of his Appropriations work, he has had few legislative accomplishments and he rarely seeks attention. He introduced a total of 29 bills during his first 14 years in the House.—

Olver is one of the quietest Members of the Bay State’s delegation, a group that isn’t short on publicity seekers. Still, he hasn’t been bashful about his ability to deliver funds for his district. He is the only Member from the state who sits on the Appropriations Committee, where he is the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development cardinal.

When he won his western Massachusetts seat, he was the first Democrat to represent the territory since the Spanish-American War.

Olver, like Crenshaw, is 6 feet 4 inches tall, and he is an avid outdoorsman.

The Congressman, who just turned 73, became a chemistry professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst at age 25.

Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.)
10th term
2008 re-election: 72 percent

Pastor’s anonymity is noteworthy for several reasons. He is the lone Arizonan on the Appropriations Committee. He is a Chief Deputy Majority Whip. He is a former chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. He replaced a legend in Congress, the late Rep. Morris Udall (D). And he was involved in a bit of a financial flap back in 2007 when it was revealed that a $1 million earmark he secured went to a scholarship program at a community college that his daughter was about to run. The mini-scandal may have cost his daughter a chance to win a seat on the Phoenix City Council. But the Congressman, operating under the radar, continues to win easily.

Rep. Todd Platts (R-Pa.)
5th term
2008 re-election: 67 percent

Platts or Pitts? We almost put Rep. Joe Pitts (R), who represents an adjoining district in southeast Pennsylvania, on the list. But he’s older, has a far longer political career, has served more time in Congress, and is a vocal social conservative. Platts, on the other hand, purposely keeps a low profile, even during campaign season. He has yet to run a political ad in his campaigns and tends to keep a distance from House Republican leaders regardless of whether he votes with them. Platts also refuses to take campaign contributions from political action committees — keeping him further than arm’s length from D.C. movers and shakers.

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