Planes, trains and automobiles

For many members of Congress, flying or riding home to the district is a weekly ritual, tolerated with the distraction of iPods, suspense novels and conversations with constituents.

Rep. Tim Walz’s (D-Minn.) staff just downloaded the popular “Leave Britney Alone” video onto Walz’s new iPhone.

The video shows a crying man upset about the way Britney Spears is being treated.

“They said, ‘This will keep you busy,’ and it did,” Walz said.

He also likes listening to a varied selection of music, from Neil Young to Green Day, as well as writing memos and reading novels.

Since travel is sometimes the only time members have to themselves, you’d think they would spend it wisely, poring over reading materials and reports from the Congressional Research Service. But sometimes, lawmakers say, this is their only time to relax, let loose and have some quality “me” time.

Rep. Steve Pearce’s (R-N.M.) commute is a horrendous nine-hour affair, requiring several hours of travel on a plane, long car rides and hours waiting in terminals. That’s enough time to learn another language, so Pearce spends his commute learning Spanish on a Rosetta Stone CD that he pops into his laptop.

“I’m on the second CD, and I know for sure I’m going to need the third,” he said.

Rep. Henry Brown Jr. (R-S.C.), on the other hand, is something of a social butterfly during his commute. He wears his congressional pin everywhere he goes. When he takes the hour-and-ten-minute flight from Washington to Charleston, he routinely sees some of the same people and often gets recognized.

Brown describes himself as a “social person,” so he’s more than happy to pass the time discussing the price of gasoline or the war in Iraq with a constituent.

“It’s really kind of neat,” he said. “You’re shaking hands all the way down the aisle.”

Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) listens to Frank Sinatra, watches episodes of “Miami Vice” on his iPod and reads Sports Illustrated on his three-hour train ride into Manhattan.

“It would be a better story if I told you I read heavy documents and practice speeches, but that would be a lie,” he said. “I really take the time as downtime.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) uses his time on the train to the Big Apple to read the New York newspapers and “get organized for the week.” Nadler said he often runs into New Jersey Democratic Reps. Steve Rothman and Robert Andrews on his weekly journey home.

As the years go by, Nadler has found himself flying the friendly skies less and less.

“It’s only an hour longer by train, and there’s less hassle because of security and you’re less cramped,” he said.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) uses his 45-minute commute back home to sneak in a nap and read the news.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) takes two books with her on the five-and-a-half-hour flight to California, “one for the mind and one for the escape,” she said.

A book on Iran currently keeps her mind busy. Her escape? Thrillers and, most recently, a book called A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, which depicts the lives of two Afghani women over three decades of anti-Soviet jihad, civil war and Taliban tyranny. (Whew, light reading, indeed.)

“It’s a great book. I read it on one flight,” Feinstein boasted.

Feinstein doesn’t watch the in-flight movies when she travels back to her district every other weekend. “They’ve been getting worse,” she said. “The quality is deteriorating.”

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) makes a point of flying home almost every weekend of the year. He usually dozes on the plane because he’s accustomed to taking the 6:10 a.m. Monday flight. That means he wakes up at 4 a.m., “when your shoes are still warm,” he joked. Nelson likes his adventure books and has read all 20 John Grisham novels.

Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) spends much of his three-hour airplane ride to Denver napping or doing the New York Times crossword puzzles. “They keep me busy,” he said.

Taking catnaps seems to be a mainstay for many members of Congress.

“I normally sleep on the plane to and from St. Louis,” Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) said.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) often spends the time writing op-ed pieces or jotting in his journals. He frequently finds himself on the same airplane as fellow Arizona Republican Reps. John Shadegg and Trent Franks. His favorite reads are thrillers, but lately he’s been reading Robert Novak’s new book The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) also does a little writing on the plane—she pens a column for Capitol File magazine. Topics vary, ranging from secrets of southern charm to gardening and southern holiday traditions. 

Although she has no time to read purely for pleasure, she is enjoying former Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan’s new book, The Age of Turbulence, even though it is critical of Republicans.