In elementary school, perfect attendance means being at school every day. Once in a while a super kid sails through high school without missing a day. Such monumental feats are usually celebrated with a certificate from the principal, or perhaps a newspaper story.
In the U.S. House, perfect attendance means never missing a vote during one’s House service and, in some rare cases, making every committee meeting. Several instances of these super Members stand out in House history.
Freshman Representative Edwin Ricketts of Ohio arrived at the Capitol ready to work in the 64th Congress (1915–1917). The enthusiastic lawyer was present to cast a vote for every roll call on the House Floor during that Congress. Ricketts, who served on the Committee on Elections #3 and the Committee on Mines and Mining, also attended every committee meeting.
According to newspaper accounts, a half dozen competitors vied for the perfect attendance in the 64th. In the waning days of the Congress, Ricketts had whittled down the competition to one final challenger, Percy Quin of Mississippi. Quin reportedly broke his streak by missing a single roll call vote in a string of eight votes at the end of the session. He lamented, “I have lost my reputation.” Ricketts made it through the last day of the session, keeping his streak intact. “I have tried hard to do my full duty to serve the people faithfully and well,” he said. “I have no regret because of any stand I have taken or any vote I have cast. My conscience is clear and to me, the fact of greater value than either honor or gold.”
Ricketts’s flawless record didn’t translate into electoral success for the first term Member. In November 1916, he had lost his re-election bid for the 65th Congress (1917–1919), but the Congressman remained dedicated to serving his constituents. Despite losing his seat, Ricketts returned home to a reception thrown by the small town of Logan, Ohio. Proud of their Congressman’s service, Logan residents fêted Ricketts and highlighted his impeccable service. They returned Ricketts to the House in the 66th and 67th Congresses (1919–1923). He repeated his perfect attendance in the 66th, but there is no mention of it in the 67th.
Another iron man of the House, Paul Brown of Georgia began his perfect attendance odyssey in 1933, after winning a special election to the 73rd Congress (1933–1935). Brown helped to set a new standard for perfection measured not in one Congress, or even two, but in decades. Like Ricketts, Brown had a perfect attendance record for both committee meetings and voting. On the occasion of his ten-year anniversary in the House, fellow Georgian and Majority Whip Robert Ramspeck congratulated Brown for his “splendid service.” Ramspeck noted that Brown was an efficient floor manager who had endeared himself to Members on both sides of the aisle, adding that he would “rather have Paul Brown working with me on a bill before the house than any other member I know. . . . The members respect him for his sincerity and frank approach.”
Personal tragedy struck Brown in March 1944 and almost ended his perfect record. The Congressman received a Navy telegram informing him of his son’s death while serving on the U.S.S. Scorpion submarine. Overcome with grief, Brown excused himself from House business. Brown’s colleagues quickly rearranged the House schedule out of respect for the Georgian and did not take a recorded vote or quorum call that day.
In the end, Brown kept his streak going for 17 years, until he fell ill in 1950. Upon his retirement in 1960, Carl Vinson, the dean of the Georgia delegation, said, “The Congress will miss PAUL BROWN. But above all, the Nation will miss the invaluable contributions this able legislator, brilliant lawyer, and devoted American has made . . . for the 27 years he has been a Member of this House.”
The ultimate perfect attendance record belongs to Representative William Natcher. The Kentuckian began his House service in the 83rd Congress (1953–1955). Nearly 10 years into his service, House Clerk Ralph Roberts certified that Natcher had a perfect voting record. “Although I do not believe that such a record is the sole criterion of a good representative,” Natcher remarked at the time, “I am definitely of the opinion that each member of Congress should stand up and be counted.”
The first decade marked just the beginning. Natcher’s streak continued through the 1960s and through the transition to recorded teller votes and electronic voting in the 1970s. (In fact, Natcher presided over the first recorded teller vote in March 1971.) Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, Natcher kept it up although the pressure of perfection seemed to have become a bit burdensome. “When I talk to new members I say to them maybe it’s better in the beginning to miss one vote that isn’t so important,” he confessed to a reporter in 1991. “I say to them I don’t advise you to do this. When you’ve been here as long as I have and never missed a day or a vote, it’s right around your neck.”
By early March 1994 Natcher’s record was in peril. When he entered a D.C.-area hospital with an illness, the House made a bipartisan gesture of goodwill. Majority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri declared, “This is a human institution.” With Democrats and Republicans concurring, House votes were delayed on March 2nd, preserving Natcher’s record. On March 3rd, in dramatic fashion, an ambulance brought Natcher to the Capitol, where he was wheeled—on a hospital gurney—onto the House Floor to cast a vote. Afterward, he returned to the hospital.
The following day, Natcher missed his first vote in 40 years—and the streak was ended at 18,401 consecutive votes. Later that month, the Kentuckian passed away. His perfect voting attendance was made all the more impressive by the fact that his career spanned the 1970s reforms that resulted in more recorded votes. More than half of the votes Natcher cast occurred before the advent of electronic voting when taking a recorded vote not only was more cumbersome and time consuming (as clerks read through the roll alphabetically), but in fact there were far fewer of them cast.
While the House doesn’t hand out perfect attendance awards, the three stories above suggest that colleagues respect the dedication it takes to master hectic and conflicting schedules to keep up a perfect streak. In 1992, then House Speaker Thomas Foley of Washington spoke of the advice he gave to freshman Members. “For heaven’s sake, do not make the mistake of a 10 percent voting record,” Foley warned, but at the opposite extreme he believed that keeping a perfect voting record “is a sentence of life in prison living in uneasy terror.”
Sources: Atlantic Constitution, 25 August 1937, 16 July 1943, 1 July 1945, 23 September 1961; Baltimore Sun, 25 September 1961; Chicago Tribune, 6 October 1964, 31 December 1991; Christian Science Monitor, 3 March 1994; Los Angeles Times, 6 October 1964; Indianapolis Star, 11 March 1917; New York Times, 4 March 1971, 8 June 1991; 2 March 1994, 3 March 1994, 4 March 1994, 8 March 1994; Washington Evening Star, 14 December 1919; Washington Post, 20 July 1969, 17 April 1991; Congressional Record, 65th Congress, 1st sess. (23 April 1917) appendix; Congressional Record, 86th Congress, 2nd sess. (29 August 1960).Follow @USHouseHistory