Overstretched and feeling guilty

Power has its price — and for many members of Congress that price comes in the form of lingering guilt.

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) feels it when he has to put up a calendar so that his 5-year-old daughter, Nia, knows when daddy is coming home next.

“I have to put [it up] every time I come here so my daughter can pull off — two days until daddy comes home, three days until daddy comes home,” Meeks said last week, explaining the family ritual he goes through.

He mimicked her childlike plea: “‘Why do you have to leave?’”

While some may insist that Congress members choose this way of life, it is still, at times, a thankless existence full of sacrifice. Lawmakers address their guilt in a variety of ways — church, trips home each weekend, extra calls to their spouses throughout the day.

Others get creative.

“When I make a promise to do something with her, I keep it no matter what,” said Meeks, whose daughter’s African name, Nia, means “purpose.”

“That seems to help her. That other [thing], no matter what, will wait, because she waits the rest of the time.”

For many members of Congress, being a powerful, well-respected member of society with the ability to write laws often involves the kind of sacrifice that isn’t normally discussed around the cloakroom.

Congressmen are stretched by their legislative and oversight duties, the clamor of their constituents and family. Whether he likes it or not, a lawmaker’s life is not his own.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) insisted that the greatest addition to the Capitol complex was the dry cleaner. “There is almost no time for personal things,” he said.

Roam the hallways some evening after 9 p.m., he suggested, and you’ll find suite after suite filled with lawmakers still at work.

“We’re preparing for another hearing, reading another report,” he said. “Many sensible people are home with their families. The greatest sacrifice you make is your personal time, and most members are on a continuous guilt trip because we are denying precious free time to our families.”

Boehlert said he receives many applications for his intern slots but pays particular attention to those he receives from other lawmakers’ children. “If the son or daughter of an elected official applies, [I accept them] because I know they pay the price. It’s not because we don’t love our kids as much as the next person, it’s just we’re committed to our jobs.”
He recalled the weekend that his wife, Marianne, came for a visit. The couple stopped being congressional and fled to Annapolis, where they “ate oysters, drank beer and just enjoyed being with each other. She understands the situation. She has lived with it all these years. She would acknowledge things get testy on occasion.”

To combat his guilt, Boehlert tries to follow the “No Sunday” rule that some lawmakers employ. For him, that means “go to church, come home, eat breakfast, go see a matinee.”

But he explained what invariably happens amid the “No Sunday” rule: “It’s a constant guilt trip. I’ll get a call from a lifelong friend who has never asked for a thing. This is the 75th anniversary of the Rotary Club, and can I come?”

Guilt, he said, always lingers. So he calls his wife often: “I start my day with a call to my wife. I call in the middle of the day. Before I hit my head on the pillow, I call in. It’s uplifting for me to call her. The other day we made a decision to get a new washer and dryer. We talk about practical matters.”

As for how Boehlert’s wife handles the unexpected obligations of his work, he said, “She understands. I understand. Neither one of us is happy about it.”

Dr. Michael G. Wetter, a psychologist in Pleasanton, Calif., who specializes in emotional health, said guilt can be a good thing even if it doesn’t feel that way: “Very often, guilt emanates from the desire to do the right thing while at the same time being conflicted about something else. Sacrifice is often linked to guilt because someone trades something for another.

“When people work in a situation where they are helping people, there is often a winner and a loser. And you don’t want to have a loser. In the fields of law, politics and medicine, you can’t please people all the time. You want to have a politician who feels guilt. Guilt is actually a positive feeling. The challenge is not to let the guilt inform their decision.”

When guilt takes over, logic goes out the door, Wetter said, which can “lead to unbalanced decisions unrepresentative of the greater good.”

Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) joked that his dogs, Nibs and Snickers, are starting to forget who he is. But on a more serious note, he said, “I’m going home this weekend because I haven’t seen my wife [Kathy] in two weeks. The reality is you’re not home as much as you’d like to be. Kathy has to take care of everything herself. It’s just something you have to put up with.”

Simpson said that he and his wife knew they would have to make sacrifices when he came to Congress but that the advance knowledge doesn’t make the sacrifices easier to bear: “It bugs me that I’m 54 years old, six years in Congress. That’s six years that Kathy and I have been living apart, and that’s six years you don’t get back.”

So is it worth it?

Simpson’s tone shifted: “Oh, if I didn’t [think so] I wouldn’t do it.”

Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) doesn’t contend with guilt the way other members do. “It’s an absolute perfect time in my life,” said LaHood, whose children are all grown and out of the house. “So I don’t feel pulled by my family. I don’t have to run home to be at soccer games.”

Still, he knows the guilt that younger members feel. “This is not a family-friendly place,” he said with grave seriousness. “I tell people who are thinking of running, it’s a huge burden on families. Soccer games, parent-teacher conferences, helping them with their homework — it’ll never be made up.

“There is no question that people with young families are torn. The schedule is just torture.”

With five children and a wife at home in Dallas, Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) knows the torture. The freshman lawmaker said he has had to learn to balance being a lawmaker and a father.

“To start out with, I’m a Roman Catholic, so I’ve had guilt since birth,” he said, laughing. “I always say, when I walk in the door I’m not a congressman, I’m a dad. I turn off the cell phone and the BlackBerry — occasionally I may check it late at night because they are so addictive.

“Quite honestly, it’s not easy. This weekend I turned down a parade in my district. The day they [my children] don’t know who I am is the day I find another job. My family is most important — without them, everything else falls.”

McCaul said he tries to keep his guilt in check: “I think everyone has a healthy share of guilt. It demonstrates that you have a conscience.”

Like most lawmakers, Meeks’s life is divided among family, politics and a little time alone. The time alone comes last. “[The] ‘for me’ time is my work,” he said. “I’m sure there is some toll, [but] I love what I’m doing. There are sacrifices, yes, but I was raised to believe that nothing good happens without sacrifice.”