The Commuter Congress

Families don’t move to Washington anymore, and lawmakers live on the road. Is this any way to govern?

In its midcentury heyday, 50 or so members of the Senate Wives’ Club, met at 10 o’clock each Tuesday morning, Democrats and Republicans alike, sitting together in Red Cross uniforms, rolling bandages and exchanging the intimate details of their lives. “We became close friends,” remembers Ellen Proxmire, whose late husband, William Proxmire, spent three decades in the Senate. “We all lived here. We would see each other on weekends.”

Today, the club, long ago renamed Senate Spouses in a nod to the growing number of women in Congress, meets about once a month, and fewer than a dozen attend. “A lot of the Senate wives don’t live here,” explains Proxmire, “so it would be harder to have a weekly meeting.” When Michelle Obama hosted the annual First Lady luncheon for the club this past July — harkening back to a time when the likes of Van Cliburn and Marvin Hamlisch played at the event– only 45 or so current Senate spouses showed for Jill Biden’s slideshow of her recent trip to Iraq, over crab cakes and grilled shrimp. The room was filled out by Proxmire and other wives of senators long-retired. “It wasn’t unusually well attended,” she says.

As the 112th Congress opens, the family lives of the nation’s lawmakers are in disarray. Newsweek recently reached 46 of the 107 freshman members of Congress, and only one—Mike Lee, the newly elected Republican senator from Utah—said he or she was planning to move to Washington with spouse and children in tow. Incoming Rep. Bobby Schilling will leave his wife, Christie, and their 10 children, including an infant, in Colona, Illinois. Chris Gibson plans to sleep on a blow-up mattress in his Washington office—and then hightail it back on weekends to Kinderhook, New York, where his young family resides. South Dakota’s high-profile freshman Kristi Noem has rented a two-room basement apartment at the corner of Ninth and North Carolina, but her goal is to be there as little as possible. “My whole life and dream has been to live in South Dakota and ranch and farm,” she says in a phone call from a Washington airport. “If we would have had to move here, I simply wouldn’t have run.

This phenomenon has ramifications far beyond absent parents and poorly attended First Lady Lunches. It’s another component that portends a new level of Capitol Hill gridlock. Real legislating—the compromises and dealmaking that distinguish politics from posturing—happens only among people who know and respect each other. Family life has always been crucial to that chemistry. During Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, first lady historian Carl Anthony points out, gritty negotiations with congressional Republicans, led by Gerald Ford, were often smoothed over by Lady Bird Johnson and Betty Ford, cultivated during long years as congressional wives.

There’s also a difference in tone. If you live across the street from your political opponent, if you know his kids, if you’ve been to dinner at his house, “it’s impossible to go up on the floor of the Senate or in the media and blast him the next day,” says Trent Lott, former Senate leader from Mississippi. If, on the other hand, you live on the road and your spouse is back home, raising the kids and running the family business by herself, bipartisan socializing might not be your first priority.

“There’s a treadmill you travel,” adds Vicki Miller, the outgoing president of the Congressional Club, another organization for Capitol Hill spouses. “I wish there was a chance to get to really know members on the other side of the aisle, but it’s just not that way.”

After the Civil War, Washington became a center of glamor and power, and, driven in part by the difficulties of interstate travel, prosperous political families would decamp to the Capital to partake of its advantages. The most public breach of this custom came in the 1950s, when Marion Javits chose to raise her children at home in New York City, drawing the derision of her peers. Over the ensuing decades, as political wives, along with women overall, achieved more independence, dozens followed Javits’ lead, having already “given up a lot for their husbands’ ambitions,” notes Connie Schultz, wife of Senator Sherrod Brown, who generally chooses to remain in Ohio.

Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, adds that when she first met President Barack Obama, he commended her for that choice, comparing it to the decision of his own wife to remain in Chicago when he went to the Senate: “He saw us both as strong women.”

After the Republican congressional takeover in 1994, such spouse-generated decisions to “stay home” received a political push. Incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich, drawing distinctions between “insiders” (bad) and “outsiders” (good), actually encouraged lawmakers to keep their families at home—escaping the Beltway trumped physical togetherness in this “family values” era. Congressional travel budgets expanded accordingly, and commuting became the norm.

“This is one of the dilemmas we all face,” says Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage: A History. “How much to protect one’s family—cocoon—and at what cost to involving them in things that will broaden their perspectives. This cocooning further isolates the nuclear family and reproduces the problems of the 1950s.”

For this year’s freshman class, backed by an anti-establishment fury that rewards those who demonstrate their independence from Washington customs, commuting is almost mandated. According to the new schedule for the House of Representatives, released in December by incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor, for five days each month, as well as most weekends, members are expected to be back in their home districts “to visit with employers, employees, seniors, veterans, and other constituent groups,” wrote Cantor in a letter accompanying the schedule. To offset, members will cram the legislative session into 11 percent fewer weeks than they did during the 111th Congress, with voting confined to three or four days a week.

Left unsaid in Cantor’s letter, but strongly implied, is that the relentless need to raise money for the next campaign is best done back home. Thus, one trend (spouses with their own jobs and routines back home) dovetails with another (congressman as perpetual fundraiser) to keep families anchored in the home district.

Attempts to forge bipartisan family bonding continue, but by their nature feel more artificial. Sandra Knollenberg, wife of former Michigan congressman Joe Knollenberg, helped organize several outings in the 1990s to Hershey, Pennsylvania, home of an amusement park and chocolate factories. “There were big trainloads of people, kids all over the place, story time,” she says. They ceased after the disputed 2000 election. “The Democrats were mad, and they weren’t going to come,” she says. “And then they came, but they were disgruntled.”

The Obamas also made an early stab at loose conviviality, inviting members of both parties to the White House for cocktails on Wednesday nights. But those parties have fizzled as well. It’s hard to make friends in Washington when your life is elsewhere and you’ve always got a plane to catch.

With Kathleen Maloney