Seven hundred and twenty two thousand residents of southwest Florida will be voiceless in the House of Representatives while Rep. Trey Radel, who pleaded guilty to cocaine charges Wednesday, takes leave to deal with his acknowledged addiction.
Radel’s announced retreat to an in-patient treatment facility means he’ll miss votes and hearings potentially crucial to his constituents. When he returns to work, he’ll likely find both hugs and harsh reassessments of his standing.
Vulnerable can be a bad thing to be on Capitol Hill on the eve of a re-election year, and absence doesn’t necessarily make the heart grow fonder.
But thanks to abundant staff and others in Florida’s 27-member House delegation, the real-world impact of Radel’s leave could also be at least partly offset.
“Staff is crucial,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican who represents a neighboring south Florida district, said Thursday. “The Florida delegation’s staff has a very good working relationship with one another regarding Florida issues.”
The 37-year-old Radel, a House freshman, announced his leave of absence in a late-night news conference Wednesday. The news conference in Coral Gables, Fla., came about 12 hours after his guilty plea in a Washington, D.C. courtroom to misdemeanor cocaine possession.
On Tuesday night, as news was first breaking about Radel’s Oct. 29 arrest for purchasing 3.5 grams of cocaine, the former journalist began telephoning his Florida colleagues. Diaz-Balart said Radel “didn’t go into detail” about the case or his leave of absence plans.
A judge placed the congressman on a year’s supervised probation and required him to pay $250. Through his attorney, David Schertler, Radel told the judge that he had already begun out-patient counseling through a Washington, D.C.-based organization called the Executive Addictive Disease Program. Schertler indicated Radel was also planning on undergoing in-patient treatment in Florida, but neither man indicated how long the leave might last.
“This team that I have in Washington and southwest Florida will be working every single day like they have been for the past year,” Radel said at his 10-minute news conference. “They’re here to serve the people.”
Radel’s 16 or so staff members lack a House vote, but they do have ongoing authority to handle constituent services and other necessities. They remain on the job, though perhaps feeling under siege.
“Our office will remain open and will continue to function at the same level it has been since Congressman Radel arrived in Washington," according to a statement Thursday from the congressman’s office. "For any Southwest Floridians in need of assistance with the federal government our office is here to help and they should contact us with their needs.
Missed votes will mark the most obvious evidence of Radel’s absence.
On Wednesday, he missed 13 House votes. On Thursday, he missed another seven votes concerning natural gas pipeline permits.
Lawmakers in December could face additional key votes, including renewal of the farm bill. Missing that vote, if it occurs, might actually save Radel some political grief. Earlier this year, as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi pointedly noted this week, Radel supported a House farm bill version that requires food-stamp beneficiaries to undergo drug testing.
Politically, missed votes do sometimes matter. They did during last year’s Senate race, when the House member that Radel ended up replacing, Republican Senate candidate Connie Mack IV, was lambasted by Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson for missing 178 votes during the first three months of the year. On the other hand, some House incumbents in recent years have missed upwards of 10 percent or more of votes and have still handily won re-election.
With many House measures approved or rejected by margins of 30 or more, moreover, Radel’s no-show is unlikely to affect final outcomes. His absence on other legislative fronts could also be offset by what his colleagues do.
"I’m sure that Trey’s staff is as active on casework as we all should and must be," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. "Constituents’ casework dealing with problems they are having with Federal agencies are routinely handled through hardworking staff in the district offices and it doesn’t appear that casework will be negatively impacted."
A member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Radel will likely miss a Dec. 11 subcommittee hearing on the Coast Guard. It’s an agency important to his coastal district, which includes Coast Guard Station Fort Myers Beach, and the hearing gives members a chance to zero in on local concerns.
The potential impact of Radel’s legislative absence could be lessened by its timing, as the House only has about 10 work days left this year. The impact on his political future is up in the air.
“I believe that members of Congress should be held to the highest ethical standard,” House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday when asked about Radel. He said the issue was between Radel, his family and his constituents.