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Data: EXography

EXography: Senators' trips home decline with time in office, age, boosting claims of term limits advocates

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Source: Examiner analysis of Senate Statements of Disbursements. Covers the three-year period ending with March 2014. Excludes senators not in office for that duration and those from Maryland and Virginia. Click a senator to see what cities he visited and when. Embed chart on your site Politics,Congress,Travel,Watchdog,Senate,Campaigns,EXography,Luke Rosiak,Tom Coburn,Accountability,Elections,Thad Cochran

Long-serving senators are more out-of-touch with constituents than recently elected lawmakers who return home more often to meet with constituents, according to a Washington Examiner analysis of congressional travel records.

The analysis appears to confirm what has long been claimed by populists and political cynics: Senators who have served multiple six-year terms tend to “go native,” becoming more focused on the priorities of special-interest groups in Washington than with the worries and concerns of the "folks back home."

High re-election rates also mean many citizens are served by lawmakers who are well past retirement age yet occupy posts that are extraordinarily physically demanding for those who intend to make every vote and travel home every weekend.

Health problems mean that octogenarian bodies are unlikely to be able to keep up with the grueling demands of constant travel and the costs of maintaining two homes. Age has an even stronger correlation to home-state absence than number of terms served.

“The longer they’re in office, the less they feel they need their constituents,” said Philip Blumel, president of the advocacy group U.S. Term Limits, who said it is an argument for capping time served in Congress at 18 years.

Rep. Tom Marino, a second-term Pennsylvania Republican, said the process of members of Congress beginning to view themselves as "royalty" can happen even faster.

“Twelve years and you’re out. I draw up that legislation every year for the last three years, and my leadership won’t let it go to committee. It’s both sides of the aisle,” Marino said.

On Friday, Marino saw what he views as a sense of entitlement on display as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a member of the Democratic leadership who has been in office since 1987, charged across the aisle, wagging her finger at him and calling him "insignificant."

“It took me six months to get my staff to stop calling me 'Congressman, sir.' My name is Tom. And it's unfortunate that it’s been browbeat into people that you’ve got to treat us like we walk on water.”

Years of life inside the bubble can detach members from a sense of reality, Marino said. Those fawning over congressmen's power "want to send a car for me, and I say, 'I can just drive my truck.' "

Blumel noted that “polling for term limits is so high and the approval for Congress is so low” that term limits would be a no-brainer except for one seeming conflict of interest: The members of Congress who would have to pass such a measure are the very ones who would lose their job security.

Marino said that makes it one of the rare times when a constitutional change instituted by the states is necessary. “I don’t think we're going to get term limits by passing legislation, I think it has to be done by a constitutional convention. ... It’s the only way it will get done.”

Half of all senators traveled home 26 times per year or more, but seven members traveled home 11 times or fewer, according to the Examiner analysis.

For lawmakers such as Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, who has served since 1977 and makes only 15 trips back to Utah annually, the position may begin to feel like something of a lifetime appointment.

Like Hatch, Sen. Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican first elected in 1978, has returned to the state only 15 times a year on average, travel records show.

That finding followed publication of a damaging report from Breitbart News that Cochran doesn’t actually live in Mississippi, renting his home there to someone else.

“When they get up in age, folks like Thad Cochran, particularly in the Senate, you really don’t ever have to leave as long as you’re breathing because you’re going to get re-elected no matter what,” Blumel said.

Newer lawmakers, meanwhile, appear more likely to view their positions as something that could be taken away from them by voters as quickly as they gave it.

Lawmakers with leadership and committee assignments must juggle national and international policy with more parochial representation.

(Part 1 of this analysis found that Majority Leader Harry Reid traveled home to Nevada only about four times a year, according to the Senate office disclosures.)

And in a system that assigns committee positions based on seniority, those with the largest national portfolios will often be the oldest.

Even if they are able to balance competing priorities, such positions can change their primary constituency from state residents to the industries and special-interest groups their committees oversee.

“As veterans, many of these people hold important positions that command support from political action committees and special interests,” and chairmen must “shake down” the industries, regardless of whether they actually like them, to raise large amounts of cash to pay hefty party dues required of chairmen, Blumel said.

One senator’s commitment to traveling home stood out for its frequency and thrift, and because of his distant location and high-ranking committee assignments.

That senator, Republican Tom Coburn, voluntarily term-limited himself and is retiring this year because of health concerns. (He had previously planned to leave the Senate at the end of his current term in 2016.)

Coburn traveled to Oklahoma 107 times in the past three years at a cost to taxpayers of only $60,000, an average of $561 per journey on commercial airlines.

Coburn limited his time in Congress in keeping with his philosophy that the government should be comprised of “citizen-legislators” who serve the public for a limited time and then return to private business.

Staying “in touch with the real-world concerns of his constituents has made him a much better senator,” said Coburn's spokesman, John Hart.

Term limits are in widespread use at the state and local level, usually because of ballot measures initiated by citizens. There is no such mechanism at the federal level.

In the 1990s, 21 states passed measures term-limiting their congressmen, but the Supreme Court squashed them before they went into effect.

The center of the term limits battle now is Illinois, where highly paid, full-time legislators have occupied their posts for decades and corruption is rife.

Supporters collected enough signatures to place a term-limits measure backed by Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner on November's ballot.

But Illinois Democrats, notably including Michael Madigan, who has been Illinois House speaker for almost 30 years, opposed the measure, and a lawyer with ties to Madigan filed a lawsuit that challenged the measure.

In June, a judge who is the daughter of a former congressman ruled the measure was unconstitutional, despite similar provisions in other states.

A bill to term-limit senators has been drafted by Sens. David Vitter, R-La., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., but as with Marino's bills, such measures have historically gone nowhere in Washington, with candidates supporting term limits while campaigning but then opposing them once in office.

In the absence of legislation, it’s up to voters to term-limit representatives by voting them out of office if they lose touch. But that has happened with too little frequency, according to term-limit advocates.

There have been some recent cases where voters have rebelled against lawmakers who they believe no longer had a strong connection to them.

Richard Lugar lost his primary election in 2012 after Indiana voters learned he hadn’t actually lived in the Hoosier State since 1977, instead staying in a hotel whenever he visited.

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