- Rubio has been part of the Helsinki Commission since 2017 but rarely attends hearings.
- Blumenthal also was absent from the hearings even though he went to Poland and Ukraine.
- The commission held numerous hearings dealing specifically with Russia’s threat to Eastern Europe.
For cable news outlets, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has been one of the most sought-after Republican voices on the war in Ukraine.
“Congress has been dragging the president to lead,” Rubio said Thursday on Fox News in criticizing President Joe Biden’s approach to the war.
But on the same morning, Rubio would skip a scheduled meeting of the US Helsinki Commission, a European security-focused body of which he’s a member. The topic that day: security threats Russia and Belarus pose to the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.
That wasn’t the only hearing Rubio has missed for the group.
An Insider review of attendance logs show that, since 2017, Rubio was present at only one Helsinki Commission hearing and provided written testimony for one other.
A total of 48 hearings occurred over that time, and many included topics specifically dealing with NATO and Russian policy affairs — though 12 of the hearings were attended only by US House members even though they were open to all lawmakers.
Rubio, 50, is running for re-election in 2022, and his attendance — or lack thereof — at official proceedings has dogged him in previous years. Florida Democrats have slammed Rubio for missing Foreign Relations Committee hearings. And fellow Republicans weaponized his missed votes when he ran for president in 2016, homing in on times when Rubio opted to attend fundraisers instead. A 2015 Politico headline declared Rubio an “absentee senator.”
In response to questions about the Helsinki Commission, Rubio told Insider at the Capitol that the group’s meetings often conflicted with his schedule and that he was slammed with this work on the Intelligence Committee, where he serves in a powerful position as vice chair. That panel receives classified briefings, meaning that unlike most hearings, its business is conducted overwhelmingly in private.
“It’s not like we can get the information afterwards,” Rubio said of his Intelligence Committee work. “You have to get it in that room, when those briefers are available, so it’s been unfortunate that the schedules just never add up at the times that they meet.”
Rubio isn’t the only senator who rarely sits in for Helsinki Commission hearings.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat of Connecticut, doesn’t appear to have attended any hearings for the agency, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, since resuming his commission membership in 2021. He also didn’t attend hearings during his time on the commission from 2011 through 2014, according to hearing transcripts.
Blumenthal described his work with the commission as “one more obligation” when asked by Insider how much time it takes out of his schedule. He noted that this week he returned from a trip to Poland that included Sen. Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Helsinki Commission. His office also said he was in Ukraine with a group that included Wicker eight weeks ago.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a tremendously active group,” Blumenthal told Insider at the US Capitol. “But it performs some very valuable functions.”
Maria McElwain, Blumenthal’s spokeswoman, described the senator as “active and engaged” in the Helsinki Commission, saying that he had scheduling conflicts during recent hearings including with the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Blumenthal’s office also pointed out that Blumenthal and Rubio in June introduced the Justice for Victims of Kleptocracy Act, which would direct the Department of Justice to publish and update the amount of money that has been stolen by the authoritarian leaders of kleptocratic regimes and recovered by US law enforcement.
Since returning from Poland, Blumenthal has been pushing for more humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine.
“The Helsinki Commission requires a respect for human rights which Russia is subjugating and savagely destroying,” Blumenthal told Insider. “And right now, human rights are at stake and imperiled as ever before.”
The commission’s work is getting busier
It’s not unusual for senators to skip committee or commission hearings. They can overlap with other hearings, votes, or meetings with constituents. Many senators also make it a habit to show up only for the five minutes that they’re scheduled to question a witness — giving them valuable on-air time and convenient sound-bite opportunities before they dash off to their next appointment.
The Helsinki Commission is different from typical congressional committees because its members come from both chambers of Congress, which can make scheduling difficult.
Wicker, who also serves on the Senate Armed Forces Committee, said the Helsinki Commission has roughly 10 hearings annually.
“The problem with this place is that it’s crazy,” Rubio said of working in Congress. “They schedule four committees at the same time. It’s impossible to get to all of them and I can’t miss Intel because I’m the vice chair.”
Scheduled hearings are a central, if low-profile part of a federal lawmaker’s job. Such work is sometimes slow and tedious, but is intended to help lawmakers make informed decisions about critical policymaking.
Helsinki Commission attendance can be sparse at times, but most of the nine senators who are members have found time to attend over the years, even if sporadically.
The commission’s work has accelerated in the weeks leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
Five Helsinki Commission members on February 3 heard testimony from Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau. And the day before, 11 members attended a hearing titled, “Russia’s Assault on Ukraine and the International Order.”
“The risk of a major war in Europe is now greater than has been anytime in the last 30 years,” Rau warned during his testimony, which came more than three weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Rubio was not at either hearing. But on the day Rau testified, Rubio appeared on Fox News to say he was not in favor of sending US troops to Ukraine.
It’s reasonable for critics or political opponents to question lawmakers who frequently skip hearings, given that they accept positions to serve on the commission, said Lindsey Cormack, an assistant professor of political science at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.
“If you have a position that says, ‘I’m willing to do this,’ and you don’t do it, I think it’s a fair thing to say,” she said.
But she added that the issue of committee and commission attendance doesn’t seem to motivate voters one way or another.
“High level political watchers and the elites look out for this, but I have never seen evidence that primary voters or general election voters care about this,” she said.
The Helsinki Commission is technically an independent US government agency with 21 members. While it doesn’t hold votes or hearings on legislation, its staff members do help members write legislation.
“One way to think of us is as an in-house think tank and legislative support organization,” said Stacy Hope, spokeswoman for the commission.
Aside from hearings and briefings, commission staff are regularly in touch with most members on legislation and writing letters, and the commission organizes lunches or meetings with lawmakers and members of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly and representatives of other OSCE institutions and participating states, Hope said.
Staff from offices are invited to briefings, and Hope said these tended to get a “strong response.” Being on the commission also gives members opportunities to travel abroad on related congressional delegations.
Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, who chairs the Helsinki Commission and also serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he feels more connected to the rest of the world because of being on the OSCE’s Parliamentary Assembly.
Generally speaking, Helsinki Commission members tend to also be part of the assembly. OSCE describes its work as tackling a “wide range of security-related concerns” including “arms control, confidence- and security-building measures, human rights, national minorities, democratization, policing strategies, counter-terrorism and economic and environmental activities.”
“It gives you a balance of 50-some nations that belong to the OSCE,” Cardin said between votes at the US Capitol, adding that “the Helsinki Commission does give us a broader perspective.”
Rubio said he spent 10 hours a week reading intelligence materials on top of attending hearings as vice chairman of the Intel Committee and that the overlaps can be “a little bit redundant.”
“The depth of which Intel analysis goes across 14 intelligence agencies is, frankly, much deeper than what any other committee or — in this case commission — has access to,” he said.
Both Rubio and Blumenthal are in an election year
Blumenthal and Rubio have each been in the Senate since 2011, and they’re both up for reelection this year. While several Republicans are vying to unseat Blumenthal, his state is considered solidly Democratic.
Rubio, a Cuban-American who is fluent in both English and Spanish, has a large national profile and is widely considered to still have White House aspirations.
During his time in the Senate, he has positioned himself as a leading expert on foreign policy and national security issues.
Polling shows Rubio is favored to win re-election. But the stakes are high — every Senate seat is considered crucial at a time when the parties have an even split in the chamber. The Florida race, in particular, could become the most expensive Senate race in history.
Voters will select Rubio’s Democratic opponent in August. The current frontrunner is Democratic Rep. Val Demings, whom President Joe Biden considered as a potential vice presidential running mate and who has had a massive fundraising haul.
Rubio’s absence from the commission brought immediate backlash from Florida Democrats, who accused Rubio of “failing to show up for his job to support our allies in Eastern Europe.”
“Marco Rubio is only focused on scoring political points to advance his own career,” said Florida Democratic Party spokesperson Grant Fox.
The Demings campaign declined to comment on Insider’s story, but the Rubio campaign took a swipe at Demings in its response to Insider’s inquiry about the commission, touting the senator’s record in Congress against hers.
“Marco Rubio has been ranked one of the most effective senators, passing meaningful legislation that includes doubling the child tax credit for working families, bringing accountability to the VA, and saving millions of jobs with the Paycheck Protection Program, all while fulfilling his significant obligations as Vice-Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee,” Elizabeth Gregory, his campaign spokeswoman, told Insider. “Val Demings has followed Nancy Pelosi’s lead 100% of the time, accomplishing nothing more than renaming a couple of post offices.”