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Obscure Caucus: The Quiet Men of Congress

Obscure doesn’t mean ineffective or passed over. In fact, in the congressional context, some of the best work gets done behind the scenes by members who would rather build relationships with their colleagues than spar with cable news anchors. These members take on low-profile policy agendas, gain reputations for expertise and benefit from tenure to climb committees or lead issue-area caucuses.

Inclusion in this caucus is not mockery or criticism, but highlights the frequently unhighlighted legislators who spend time on parochial concerns or constituent service. Few lawmakers opt not to stuff a PR portfolio with press releases, television appearances and photo ops, but Obscure Caucus members have few national news mentions or moments in the public eye. Many of these members are big players in policy and political circles, but for whatever reason — political style, personal preference or the issue itself — they earned few or fleeting headlines for their achievements.

Not every member gets considered for this ever-shrinking club of those who avoid the spotlight. To make the first cut, a member must have served at least two full terms and be running for re-election to his or her House seat in 2014. (The size of the Senate provides too much visibility to its members, although there are some camera-shy senators — Republican Jim Risch of Idaho, for instance, doesn’t work the mic much.) Culling the showhorses, the newbies, the scandal-hounded and members who face tough elections leaves a rather short list of representatives. Social-media activity oriented toward local issues or restricted to retweets from party leaders won’t knock you off the list, but any kind of self-promotion (even not-very-successful attempts at it) will.

Perhaps their membership in the caucus isn’t indicative of their legislative achievements — as many have had bills signed into law and have teamed up with colleagues on notable measures — but it is indicative of what they haven’t done. They haven’t grandstanded, they haven’t brought bold personalities into a debate, they haven’t sent inappropriate Twitter messages and they haven’t, in recent years, sought a higher office than the House of Representatives.

Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla.
4th District; 7th term

2012 re-election: 76 percent

Crenshaw first joined the caucus in 2009 and seems to be in for the long haul. Even the gavel of an Appropriations subcommittee and a high-profile battle to secure an aircraft carrier at Jacksonville’s Naval Station Mayport hasn’t moved him into the spotlight.

At 6 feet 4 inches, he’ll stand out in a room, but he doesn’t look to stand out among fellow lawmakers. Crenshaw rarely speaks on the House floor (a misidentification on C-SPAN first alerted us to his obscure qualifications) and in his entire congressional career, he’s introduced fewer than 30 bills. He’s sent 500-some tweets from his official account. By comparison, freshman Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Republican from the neighboring 6th District, has sent more than 700.

Before winning his House seat, Crenshaw was an investment banker and an attorney; 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. He did spend 14 years in the state legislature, including time as Senate president. An Orlando Sentinel article in 1993 called him a “conciliatory leader” and a “genuinely nice guy.”

John J. Duncan Jr., R-Tenn.
2nd District; 13th full term

2012 re-election: 74 percent

One of the holdovers from the 2011 caucus, Duncan sticks with the tools he brought with him to Congress to replace his father in this Knoxville-based seat — and he hasn’t upgraded as technology has made high-volume outreach more accessible. He has no Twitter presence, he dislikes cellphones and email, and he doesn’t send out many press releases of national relevance.

The dean of the Tennessee delegation, Duncan wields power on two high-profile committees but rarely puts himself in the spotlight — and Republican leadership isn’t likely to put him there anytime soon. Duncan has honed issue-area expertise in a career-long tenure on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, but his occasional departures from the GOP line may have kept him from taking the committee’s gavel. That independent streak, and a reputation among colleagues as having libertarian tendencies, doesn’t score him appearances on cable news shows or mentions in newspapers outside the state.

Duncan’s legislative successes come from behind-the-scenes negotiating and without the need to tout them in his strongly Republican district. He hasn’t dropped below 70 percent in any election since the special and general elections he won in 1988.

Brett Guthrie, R-Ky.
2nd District; 3rd term
2012 re-election: 64 percent

We had our eye on Guthrie two years ago for future membership in the caucus, and so it is no surprise he made it in his first year of eligibility. Guthrie keeps his legislative focus narrow from the GOP’s back benches. He has a subdued social-media presence mainly related to his campaign activities, which don’t take much time in his solidly Republican district with constituents who have re-elected him twice by wide margins.

Most of his work — and nearly all of the very limited time he has spent speaking on the House floor — is related to job creation and workforce training programs. Personal experience informs Guthrie’s views on how to prepare people for available jobs: He saw the effect of factory closings on the town where he grew up, and he later worked for his family’s auto parts company. The rest of the West Point graduate’s time is spent working to aid military veterans.

He stuck with his experience when he got to the Kentucky Senate, learning that “you can’t be an expert in everything.” His expertise won him an Education subcommittee gavel in his freshman term in the House and a place on the influential Energy and Commerce Committee in his second.

Leonard Lance, R-N.J.
7th District; 3rd term
2012 re-election: 57 percent

Lance comes from a state of big personalities. He’s not one of them. He’s moderate, polite and studious, and the closest he’s come to a “scandal” was when he told The Star-Ledger of Newark that he sometimes fantasizes about debt reduction in the shower. Lance was on our Obscure Caucus watch list in 2011, and we slotted him in here right away this year.

Fiscally conservative and an admirer of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s coalition-building skills, he generally supports his party leadership on votes where a majority of Republicans oppose a majority of Democrats. His notable departure from the GOP was during the 111th Congress, when he backed a cap-and-trade climate change bill.

One of his legislative priorities has been to make Congressional Research Service publications available to the public online. But overall, Lance is more of a traditionalist: He said he did not start using a cellphone until 2004, and his home in New Jersey was built in 1780.

Following a family tradition of holding political office in New Jersey and pursuing a career in the law, Lance spent time as a counsel for Gov. Thomas H. Kean. After serving in both chambers of the state legislature, Lance won a seat in Congress in 2008.

Rick Larsen, D-Wash.
2nd District; 7th term
2012 re-election: 61 percent

This is Larsen’s third spin with the Obscure Caucus. His close win in the 2010 election over Republican John Koster (51 percent) nearly cost him his place on the dance card, but the election itself wasn’t covered extensively on the national stage. After decennial redistricting, Larsen won with a comfortable 61 percent in 2012, solidifying his presence on our list.

Before he entered the House in 2001, he worked for the Port of Everett and then became the director of public affairs for the Washington Dental Association. His other elected experience was on the Snohomish County Council.

Moderate in his manner and his views, Larsen is an approachable lawmaker with a self-effacing sense of humor. He rarely speaks on the House floor and though he’s introduced a sizable amount of legislation, much of it deals with local issues and sexy topics such as Export-Import Bank reauthorization.

His office earned unwelcome attention in December 2011 — but it was the staffers, not the congressman, who created the headlines. Larsen fired three legislative aides who bragged on Twitter that they had been drinking in the office, destroyed property and bad-mouthed the congressman.

Kenny Marchant, R-Texas
24th District; 5th term
2012 re-election: 61 percent

An exemplar of this caucus, Marchant comes right out and says that “being at the microphone and giving the speeches and all that never was part of my deal.” It wasn’t part of the deal in the state House — where he gave about eight speeches in 18 years — and it isn’t part of the deal in Washington. In his third term on the caucus, Marchant has earned the chairmanship.

Financial expertise suits his representation of his Dallas-Fort Worth-area district’s major corporations and would highlight his own wealth if he chose a far-reaching platform for pushing his federal tax overhaul agenda. The committee hearing rooms for the Ways and Means and Education panels are his favored venue for public speaking. His preferred method of communication is directly to constituents — through e-newsletters and tele-town-hall meetings — and by design he rarely shows up in national news coverage. But his name does get in the papers, at least this one, with the annual listing of the 50 Richest Members of Congress.

Marchant donates significant amounts to his family’s charitable foundation, but in keeping with his modest style, he doesn’t talk about it much and it’s not mentioned on his sparse Wikipedia page.

Ed Pastor, D-Ariz.
7th District; 11th full term
2012 re-election: 82 percent

Pastor is a trusted Democratic insider, but he rarely makes headlines and goes in search of media attention even less often. According to his House website, he issued one press release in April 2013 on the Congressional Art Competition and one in June on the immigration bill passing the Senate.

Pastor is a returning Obscure Caucus member, and nothing since 2011 has warranted his removal. The first Hispanic person elected to Congress from Arizona, he’s still active in immigration debates, but other members of Congress have caught more attention on the issue. The naturalization workshops he holds in his district aren’t as TV-ready as a stemwinder at a news conference.

Unlike many other politicians in Arizona, Pastor is low-drama and has a confident hold on his seat. He is an appropriator and has been one of his party’s chief deputy whips since 1999. He does not have an active Twitter account for his congressional service; his campaign handle has sent about 100 tweets, but it still describes him as “Putting People Before Politics.” According to recent CQ Roll Call staff queries, he has an office manager, a scheduler and a press secretary but no chief of staff.

Tom Petri, R-Wis.
6th District; 17th full term
2012 re-election: 62 percent

The pragmatic Petri espouses a classic Midwestern work ethic and represents a district that loves its cheese, Christmas trees and the Wisconsin Dells vacation spot. He doesn’t have an official Twitter handle, his cable news appearances are slim and he rarely gives rousing floor speeches. One of his YouTube hits is him driving a pedicab in Washington in 2010.

Petri should have more notoriety than he does. One of the founders of the moderate Ripon Society, he is the fourth-most-senior House Republican, having won a special election in 1979. (Seven of his current House colleagues were born after he entered the House.) But since 2001, he has been passed over four times when the top Republican seat on one of his committees has opened up. Now, he is second on the Education and Workforce Committee and third on Transportation and Infrastructure.

Petri was part of early discussions in 2013 to rework the federal education loan system. One of his proposals offered only one type of loan, tying it to interest rates of the 10-year Treasury note. Though active in the debate, it wasn’t his bill that the president signed in August, and Petri’s name was mainly absent from headlines about the legislation.

Adrian Smith, R-Neb.
3rd District; 4th term
2012 re-election: 74 percent

The anonymity afforded a Mr. Smith is a boon to the Nebraska Republican, who would much rather spend his time advancing local agricultural concerns than being called on to take a position on national issues. He sponsors few bills, he has spoken on the floor for less than six minutes total during the 113th Congress and his sole national exposure was giving one of the GOP’s weekly radio addresses — in 2008. Smith got his start in local politics at 23, when he won a city council seat in Gering but kept his small-town style when he moved to the state legislature and then the House.

As co-chairman of the Congressional Rural Caucus and member of the Ways and Means Committee, he has fixed his legislative focus firmly on the effect of the tax code on rural communities and the opportunity to promote agricultural exports out of his vast western Nebraska district. Smith doesn’t have to pay much attention to anywhere outside his home turf, where his family has lived for generations.

He also doesn’t have to pay much attention to campaigning — he won his seat in 2006 by a double-digit margin and hasn’t fallen below 70 percent in his three subsequent elections.

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