Family unfriendly

Like any new member, Rep.-elect Tim Walz (D-Minn.) is elated about coming to Congress and changing the country for the better.

He also has a heavy heart.  

Come January, when his congressional career begins, the time he has with his children, Hope, 5, and Gus, 7 weeks, will fall drastically. His family, like those of many other freshmen, is not moving to Washington.

Sen.-elect Jon Tester’s (D-Mont.) wife, Sharla, is expecting the couple’s third child in January. The family will keep a home in Montana and is searching for an apartment in Washington. Rep.-elect Bill Sali (R-Idaho), the freshman class president, is also not planning to move his family here.

Walz and his wife, Gwen, will reassess the situation in May. “My daughter likes to hang out with me and she probably won’t in a few years,” said the congressman, contemplating a bitter reality.

He is going through the same difficult decisions that most new members face coming to Congress. But he and his classmates might land with a bigger bump than previous newcomers because Democratic leaders such as Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) want to extend the congressional work week, making the weekend commute for Walz and others less desirable.

“We’re going to work more than Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday,” Reid declared at a recent Christian Science Monitor breakfast.

When Republicans came to power in 1994, they worked so hard in the first 100 days on then-Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America that several members divorced before the Congress let out.

This January, lawmakers could be setting themselves up for another family-unfriendly Congress as Democrats try to contrast themselves with the Republican masters of what they called the “Do-Nothing Congress.”

“To have the younger members up there four and five days a week is a disaster to their marriages,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.).

Still, not everyone thinks the longer work week is a bad idea, particularly those lawmakers who have moved their families to Washington and avoided trouble from constituents.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who can easily afford two homes, is all for it. “I think that is a most excellent idea,” he said last week. “We don’t have a work week. We have a work-two-days. Going up to five full days is what we need to do.

“That’s what we did under Mitchell,” he said, referring to former Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine), majority leader from 1989 to 1995.

Asked about hardship for families, Rockefeller replied, “You sign up for that when you sign up for the job. It shouldn’t hurt the country if we get something done.”

Under a plan submitted by Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) to Pelosi, lawmakers would work five days a week for an undetermined consecutive number of weeks and then have a week off to return home or travel. During the workdays, schedules would be divided into committee work in the morning and votes in the afternoon.

“I hope we’ll do it,” said Baird. “I hope what we’ll do is find a way to focus on the work that we’re supposed to be doing rather than chasing the first flight in and out every week.”

Baird said he believes such a schedule would improve relations between the parties. “It’s much harder to cut someone’s throat procedurally if you had dinner with them and their families that weekend.”

Baird’s wife and twin boys live with him in Washington, D.C.

Author Norman Ornstein recalls 1994, saying, “It wasn’t so much the work week that did it … You had a group of members coming in that insisted on leaving their families back home … They saw Washington as … corrosive and dangerous. It was like coming into a spot with the Ebola virus.”

Kingston remembers at least three freshman marriages breaking up. “You’re working hard, you’re in that Washington bubble, you’re drifting from your family and children,” he said. “Probably one of the biggest issues members have [but] can’t discuss is marital problems.”

Many Republican Revolution freshmen found that Washington politics meant they could not bring their families here, no matter how much damage the separation was doing.

Congress needs to commit to a substantial number of five-day work weeks and face the fact that a $160,000 annual salary does not pay for two households, said Ornstein.

He suggests an alternative of three weeks working five days and one week off.

But Democrats say Congress should turn into a “Do-Something” institution that, in turn, would make Capitol Hill more collegial, said Baird, because lawmakers would have to stay over the weekends and socialize across the aisle.

Some Democratic aides have mixed feelings. “Can I tell you how many staffers are complaining about that?” asked one Senate Democratic press secretary, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We had it good under the Republicans. We might not have accomplished much, but the quality of life was certainly better.

The aide conceded, “There might be some good in a longer work week. We might accomplish something for the American people — spend less time at bars. It just means less time in the District, less time campaigning, less time shaking hands and kissing babies.”

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, before easy commercial air travel, members would come to Congress for half a year at a time, said Associate Senate Historian Don Ritchie.

“When Jefferson Davis first came to Congress in the 1840s it took a month to travel from Mississippi to Washington,” Ritchie said. “He took a boat up the Mississippi to the Ohio River, then another boat down [the] Ohio to Wheeling, West Virginia, [and then a] stage coach to Washington.”

Sometimes spouses came with the member, sometimes not. Abraham Lincoln lived in one room of a boardinghouse and understandably found the presence of his wife and several children too chaotic. He told them to visit her father in Kentucky.

In those days, few members could afford houses; most lived in hotels or boardinghouses.

Ritchie said life changed drastically for lawmakers in 1958 with the advent of jet-plane travel. More lawmakers could go home, but it was typical of Congress to work five days and sometimes Saturdays.

Members routinely stayed in Washington on weekends — socializing, playing golf, attending each other’s dinner parties. “They were neighbors,” said Ritchie. “They played squash together.” Political couples such as John F. Kennedy and wife Jackie socialized across the aisle, spending time with Kentucky Republican Sen. John Sherman Cooper and his wife, Lorraine.

Former Rep. Gerry Sikorski (D-Minn.), now a lobbyist with Holland & Knight, served in the House from 1983 to 1993. During his time, members worked four days a week, with many returning to Washington on Sunday.

“It led to a lot more civility and collegiality,” he said.

Sikorksi doesn’t accept the idea that the schedule breaks up families: “You could be in three days a week and out four and it doesn’t mean that people are spending more time with their families,” he said.

The Tuesday-through-Thursday schedule became standard after the 1994 election — the philosophy of the day was “families shouldn’t move to Washington,” said Ritchie.

But change is coming and some worry about it. “I know my constituents want me to be a good representative,” Walz said, “but I know they want me equally to be a good father. I was assuming we would be going five days a week, and my wife is prepared for that.

“What concerns me is just for my mental state. I have to be with those kids. I’m going to balance this and work as hard as you can.”

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