The Commuter Congress

Article excerpt

Byline: Lisa Miller

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

In its midcentury heyday, the Senate Wives' Club, a charitable group, met at 10 o'clock each Tuesday morning in the Russell Caucus Room on Capitol Hill. Fifty or so wives--Democrats, Republicans, and, at least once, Jackie Kennedy--would sit together in Red Cross uniforms, rolling bandages and exchanging the intimate details of their lives. "We became close friends. We all lived here. We would see each other on weekends," remembers Ellen Proxmire, whose late husband, William Proxmire, spent three decades in the Senate. Eventually, in a nod to the growing number of females in Congress, the club changed its name to Senate Spouses, though Proxmire says most husbands never came.

Today, the club meets about once a month, and fewer than a dozen spouses 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 luncheon for the club this past July--an event that current and former spouses once anticipated with great excitement--crab cakes and grilled shrimp were served, and Jill Biden showed slides of her recent trip to Iraq. But only 90 or so spouses came, according to Proxmire, and half were 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. Old-timers complain that politicians don't live in Washington anymore, but in truth, they don't live anywhere. Commuting has long been a political reality, but this Congress, elected in a wave of anti-establishment fury, seems determined to show the world that Washington itself--the city, its social life, its history--holds no sway over them. According to the new schedule for the House of Representatives, released in December by incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor, members will spend 11 percent fewer weeks in legislative session than they did during the 111th Congress. Voting will take place three or four days a week. 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. (And, it goes without saying, to raise money for their next campaigns.)

Watching this peripatetic frenzy from the sidelines, the spouses--for whom a move to Washington was once "a no-brainer," Proxmire says--simply shrug and stay put, preferring to keep their jobs, maintain their routines, and endure their separations in familiar surroundings. Vicki Miller, the outgoing president of the Congressional Club, another organization of members' spouses, says the thinking goes something like this: "We'll just see you when you get home."

This is more than a massive marital crisis, for the way politicians live affects the way they govern. Real legislating--the compromises and dealmaking that distinguish politics from posturing--happens only among people who know and respect each other, and family life is crucial to that chemistry. 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," agrees Miller. "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. …