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Obscure Caucus: Members Who Dodge the Spotlight

Obscurity is a four-letter word for most politicians, but some Members of Congress build their careers outside the spotlight.

The members of the Obscure Caucus stay off the national cable news circuit, spend more time forging relationships with colleagues behind closed doors than elbowing in front of C-SPAN cameras and avoid the kind of innuendo-laced stories that make up so much of today’s political coverage.

Membership in the Obscure Caucus, which highlights the careers of the frequently unhighlighted Congressional workhorses, is not a form of mockery or criticism. Members who make up the caucus roster tend to focus on wielding power accumulated over years of easy re-elections and climbing the seniority ladder on A-list committees instead of building a public portfolio. In short, these Members won’t be competing with Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) for the next cover of Men’s Health.

Parochial issues often rank as a high priority for these Members, and constituents are more likely to see them at the state fair than on a Sunday morning talk show.

There can be no definitive metric for determining membership of the caucus, but there are some long-established criteria to cull the show horses, the scandal-hounded, Members who face tough elections every year and the Members who are obscure only by dint of their short tenure.

To make the roster, Members must have served at least two full terms, although some freshmen and sophomores look like shoo-ins for future enrollment. We’re keeping an eye on Ohio’s Steve Austria, Kentucky’s Brett Guthrie, New Jersey’s Leonard Lance and Tennessee’s Phil Roe — all of them Republicans who could find their way onto the roster in the future.

Retiring Members and Members who will likely face off against another incumbent after redistricting are not eligible. Floor appearances, citations in national news media in print and on television, political action committee activity and online presence all factor into the admittedly subjective analysis.

Although Twitter has gotten celebrities and politicians alike in hot water and is the easiest means of self-
promotion, the constituent outreach opportunities of micro-blogging mean that having an active account is not an automatic disqualifier.

And not every House Member who tries to stay out of the spotlight is able to make the cut. Democrat Brian Higgins would have easily kept a spot in the caucus, but the loss of two seats in New York following reapportionment led him to hire a lobbyist in Albany to make sure he holds on to his Buffalo-area district — not an obscure move by far.

As with all previous versions of this exclusive list, the ninth edition of Roll Call’s Obscure Caucus includes only House Members because their Senate brethren are notable by their number and the nature of the chamber.

Dropping off this year’s list — last published in 2009 — are Higgins, Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.), Timothy Johnson (R-Ill.), Mike Michaud (D-Maine) and Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). Gallegly, after a low-profile and loyal career, made  national news in 2011 when he beat out Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) for the top spot on the Judiciary Committee’s immigration panel. Miller has picked up his national news show appearances after becoming Veterans’ Affairs chairman, and Johnson — even though he didn’t join his GOP Illinois colleagues in a lawsuit challenging the state’s redistricting map (citing constituent services priorities) — broke with his party on the debt ceiling increase plan pushed by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). Johnson, who is notoriously eccentric and was dubbed Obscure Caucus chairman in 2007, is also likely to face a difficult re-election due to redistricting.

The nine men and one woman who make up this year’s Obscure Caucus all fall into the ever-shrinking category of non-self-promoting politicians. Most of them do not have an active Twitter account and have a minimal presence in Google news results and on Wikipedia. Even the most avid cable news junkies could be forgiven for not recognizing these Members, no matter how many bills they introduce.

Without further ado, the 2011 Obscure Caucus (in alphabetical order):

Jerry Costello (D-Ill.)

12th full term

2010 re-election: 60 percent

Despite receiving some bad press for a phone call to the Illinois secretary of state in 2002 to help his son get a job over more qualified candidates, Costello remains unassuming on the national stage. This is his second time meriting a spot in the Obscure Caucus: The Illinois Democrat made his debut on our 2003 list.

Costello is not flashy, and he rarely speaks on the House floor (C-SPAN notes only four appearances so far in the 112th Congress). He has introduced only two bills in 2011.

During his almost quarter of a century in Congress, Costello has maintained his focus on boosting economic growth and infrastructure for his struggling East St. Louis region. He is the ranking member on a Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee panel and tackles issues such as pilot fatigue, planes idling on tarmacs and a new Mississippi River bridge.

Costello is on Twitter, but he has used it fewer than 150 times and mostly mentions local Illinois events or town hall meetings. In July 2011, he did tweet that he was “honored” to receive a Friend of the National Parks Award — a distinction earned by him and 235 other Members of Congress.

Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.)

6th term

2010 re-election: 77 percent

Skimming a list of Members while looking for the most obscure, you might not even consider Crenshaw. And that is precisely why it took a misidentification on C-SPAN to alert us to his qualifications when he first made the list in 2009.

The 6-foot-4-inch Florida Republican belongs to the Tea Party Caucus and is chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that handles funding for the legislative branch. But he has introduced fewer than 20 bills in his entire Congressional career and has ranked among the least legislatively active Members of Congress for several years.

Before winning his House seat, Crenshaw was an investment banker and an attorney and said he thought about political office only after he started dating (and later married) Kitty Kirk Crenshaw, the daughter of former Florida Gov. Claude Kirk Jr.

He ran in — and lost — statewide elections in 1978, 1980 and 1994. After 14 years in the state Legislature, he was elected to Congress in 2000. Once in the House, Crenshaw eventually earned the support of his party leadership but was passed over in favor of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) for the Budget ranking member slot in the 110th Congress.

From his seat on Appropriations, he focuses on his northern Florida district. Before the Republican moratorium on earmarks, he avidly sought out funding for special projects. A key success for him was the opening of a Jacksonville VA National Cemetery in 2009.

Crenshaw uses Twitter more than other Obscure Caucus members, but his tweets are only retweeted by one or two others, if at all.

Despite his height, he could pose for the stock photo of a Member of Congress or a lobbyist: white, male and silver-haired.

Susan Davis (D-Calif.)

6th term

2010 re-election: 62 percent

Davis is consistent and quiet, and when you search for her on Google News, you get fewer than 100 hits — many of which refer to others with the same name.

A reliable Democratic vote, Davis does not hold a leadership post and can get lost in the shuffle among the high-powered female Members of California’s Democratic delegation, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Although she represents powerful military installations in her San Diego district, Davis does not use that clout for personal gain. (Perhaps her master’s degree in social work has informed her outlook.)

She is the ranking member of the Armed Services’ Subcommittee on Military Personnel and was a leading proponent for the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy on gay servicemembers. She has focused on reducing sexual assault in the military and issues relating to military families’ quality of life.

But Davis does not push those issues on Twitter, which she doesn’t use, or in frequent trips to the House floor. Her recent national media exposure is limited to one appearance on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” program in August 2011.

John Duncan (R-Tenn.)

12th full term

2010 re-election: 82 percent

Running on your father’s name to replace him might sound like precisely the kind of gambit that permanently keeps a Congressman off the rolls of the Obscure Caucus. But Duncan is a low-profile legislator who had been passed over for senior committee assignments for years.

The longest-serving legislator in the Tennessee delegation, Duncan has held a spot on Transportation and Infrastructure subpanels for his entire Congressional career and earned a key subcommittee gavel in the 112th Congress just in time to influence federal highway reauthorization legislation. His subcommittee chairmanship should raise his profile on Capitol Hill, but most of his work rewriting the highway bill will take place behind the scenes and likely will not increase his visibility outside the Beltway.

Periodic votes against his party leadership, no appearances on cable news shows, limited press releases on issues of national importance and less than half an hour on the House floor so far in the 112th Congress are standard statistics for Duncan. He wins re-election by wide margins in a strongly Republican district that hasn’t sent a Democrat to the House since before the Civil War.

Rick Larsen (D-Wash.)

6th term

2010 re-election: 51 percent

Larsen makes the Obscure Caucus for a second time despite a narrow win in 2010 to keep his seat. His Bellingham-based district has been competitive since Larsen won his first election in 2000, making his win percentages in the 60s from 2002 to 2008 all the more impressive. Up against a GOP wave, Larsen’s moderate stance and an increasing loyalty to his Democratic Party leadership left him vulnerable.

But even eking out a win when so many of his colleagues were booted by Republican candidates couldn’t get Larsen mentions in national news coverage. The biographical and electoral information on his Wikipedia page remain sparse, and his Twitter feed has fewer than 900 followers.

He has appeared only twice on the House floor in the 112th Congress but has introduced six bills.

Larsen told Congressional Quarterly: “I grew up believing that one’s obligation to the community is equal to one’s obligation to oneself.” It’s a pretty unlikely path to walk for a politician.

Larsen is among a handful of Members who Metro to work every day. If you happen to see him on your morning commute, let him be. The man doesn’t like to attract attention.

Kenny Marchant (R-Texas)

4th term

2010 re-election: 82 percent

Marchant, who is the antithesis of a grandstander, has not spoken on the House floor so far in the 112th Congress. In 2007, during a debate on Iraq troop levels, he went to the floor multiple times, speech in hand, but arrived too late and missed his chance.

He’s said that he’s “never been much of an orator” and that he gave only about eight speeches in 18 years in the Texas Legislature, where he was the go-to man behind the scenes for the Republican Party.

In Congress, his party unity scores — the percentage of votes on which he sided with Republicans on issues that pitted majorities of each party against one another — have never dipped below 97 percent. And his loyalty won him a seat on the Ways and Means Committee for the 112th Congress.

Marchant does, however, get ink when Roll Call publishes the annual 50 Richest Members of Congress list (see Page 17). For 2011, he ranked No. 19, with at least $18.76 million in assets. Outside of running for Congress — and he has won comfortably in the past — he focuses his efforts on the Marchant Family Foundation, which contributes to educational scholarships and local Texas charities.

John Olver (D-Mass.)

10th full term

2010 re-election: 60 percent

Despite having a seemingly permanent spot on retirement watch lists and Massachusetts’ impending loss of a Congressional seat, Olver looks set to continue his decades-long House tenure.

A successful appropriator, the 75-year-old Olver is an avid outdoorsman with a well-earned professorial air — he has a Ph.D. in chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and taught the subject at the University of Massachusetts before beginning his political career in 1969. Although he has sponsored only 39 bills during his Congressional career, Olver takes pride in having brought tens of millions of dollars in earmarks to Western Massachusetts over the years.

At 6 feet, 4 inches tall, Olver should stand out in a crowd, even in the Capitol, but the solitary legislator prefers poring over spending bills to drawing attention to himself. His 20 years in Congress have led to almost no appearances on television — his face time on the House floor accounts for only 13 minutes in the 112th Congress.

In a delegation that has attracted its share of attention in the past several years — from Rep. Barney Frank’s (D) pontificating at the head of the Financial Services Committee to Rep. Ed Markey’s (D) role in climate change legislation (and his patented one-liners to the press) to Rep. Scott Brown’s (R) surprising victory in a special election to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) — Olver happily remains in the background.

Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.)

10th full term

2010 re-election: 67 percent

Pastor has introduced two bills thus far in the 112th Congress: both private bills relating to immigration visas and previously introduced in the 111th Congress. The first Hispanic person elected to Congress from Arizona, immigration is a key issue for Pastor, but his efforts have been obscured by those of fellow Arizona Democrat, Rep. Raúl Grijalva. Grijalva shares Pastor’s legislative interests but has garnered more attention — and is anything but obscure.

Instead of grandstanding, Pastor chooses to hold naturalization workshops in his district. And instead of calling for a boycott of Arizona after its tough immigration law passed in 2010, he called on the Justice Department to legally challenge the law.

Pastor is a member of the Democratic leadership. He has been one of the chief deputy whips since 1999, but he is not as well-known as fellow whips Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) or Jan Schakowsky (Ill.).

Pastor sits on the Appropriations Committee but uses his seat to funnel funds to his state for transportation and water projects.

A former teacher, he does not have a Twitter account, and his floor time in the 112th Congress has amounted to about 16 minutes, according to C-SPAN.

Tom Petri (R-Wis.)

16th full term

2010 re-election: 71 percent

Petri’s middle-of-the-road Republicanism and occasional support of a Democratic White House has led to his being repeatedly passed over for plum committee posts despite having a strong record of shepherding complicated legislation through the House.

Petri found himself back on another Roll Call roster this year — the 50 Richest Members of Congress list. His investments in the last reporting period made him No. 26 on the list after he dropped out of the top 50 in 2010.

Earlier in his career, the otherwise scandal-free Petri did draw unwanted headlines for financial matters. Petri had 77 overdrafts at the House bank during the scandal that rocked the institution in the early 1990s. He was held to 53 percent in the 1992 election — but he has won every other re-election, before and since, with at least 64 percent of the vote.

The veteran lawmaker doesn’t appear on cable news, on the House floor or in videos on his campaign site. In fact, one of Petri’s most recent public appearances was a speech on behalf of his English bulldog, Ketcham, who was named the “Elder Statesdog” by the Humane Society in June 2011.

But he wasn’t always so removed from the microphone — as a teenager in Wisconsin, he was the state’s youngest on-air personality, hosting a weekly radio show called “Teen Time.”

Todd Platts (R-Pa.)

6th term

2010 re-election: 72 percent

New to the 2009 list, Platts has proved his low-key bona fides and earned the chairmanship of this year’s roster. In six elections, Platts has never run a television campaign ad, does not take contributions from third-party political action committees or his own party’s leadership and does not operate a PAC in a day and age when almost all Members have them.

He spent less money on his 2010 re-election — $250,797 — than all but one of his House colleagues and less money in 2008 — $192,495 — than all but two other House Members.

A senior member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee who holds a subcommittee gavel, Platts also sits on the Armed Services and the Education and Workforce committees. Despite his subcommittee chairmanship, Platts doesn’t make television appearances and has spoken on the House floor only four times in the 112th Congress — for a total of less than four minutes.

Promoting one’s membership in the Obscure Caucus is a sure way to get kicked out of it. But when the York Dispatch sought out Platts for comment about his Obscure Caucus membership in 2009, he repeated our description of what it takes to be a caucus member — he’d “rather be a workhorse than a show horse.”


The article incorrectly stated the year Rep. Rick Larsen was first elected to Congress. He was first elected in 2000.