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Family Values in Congress? Only If They Adjourn Early

November 30, 1994|BARBARA SLAVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) missed her daughter's graduation; Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), his 20th anniversary dinner.

At one point, the children of Rep. Pat Danner were so desperate to see her that, unbeknown to the Kansas City, Mo., Democrat, they bought a lunch with their mother at a public television station auction.

Nobody who works in--or for--Congress has any illusions about how unrelenting the job can be.

But the new Republican leadership, elected on a platform of strengthening America's families, has promised to make its own place of employment more "family-friendly"--at least for those who remain after the anticipated major Democratic staff reductions.

As one of his first acts after the Nov. 8 elections, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who is in line to become Speaker of the House, appointed Republican Virginia Rep. Frank Wolf, a father of five, to head an advisory committee on improving Congress' quality of family life. The current schedule, Gingrich said, "brutalizes and damages families by its intensity and pace."

Few denizens of Capitol Hill would disagree. But despite that rare bipartisan feeling, Congress may have difficulty changing its spots, even as it changes its keepers.

Dashing hopes immediately after they raised them, the new House leaders declared that they expect members to work seven days a week, "even 20 hours a day if necessary"--in the words of Rep. Dick Armey (R-Tex.), the likely next majority leader--to pass the party's "Contract With America" within 100 days.

"They're already contradicting themselves," Richardson said. "I think the effort is a good one, but the Republicans are politicizing what needs to be a (bipartisan) reform, asserting it as a 'family values' issue as though Democrats don't have them."

This latest effort at reform is hardly unprecedented.

"This has been kicking around Congress for a long time," said Rep. Sam Coppersmith (D-Ariz.). "It's what members talk about when they're sitting around waiting for one of those interminable votes."

The outgoing Democratic-led Congress actually started out quite family-friendly, according to members, with the House sticking to its normal Tuesday through Thursday schedule.

But like students who leave their homework to the last minute, Democratic leaders began tacking on Mondays and Fridays--days meant for members to travel and meet with constituents--in an ultimately fruitless effort to pass large quantities of legislation before the August recess.

As the recess continued to be postponed, vacations were canceled, graduations and family reunions missed, and the atmosphere on Capitol Hill became increasingly surly.

"You couldn't get into an elevator without hearing members grumble," said Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio), a member of the new advisory committee and the mother of a 4-year-old daughter. "I thought the place was going to explode."

Earlier in the year, an attempt was made to change the House schedule to the Senate schedule, which calls for five-day weeks for three weeks, followed by one week off.

A resolution introduced by Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.) attracted 80 co-sponsors, but Maloney collected 120 signatures on a rival petition to retain the status quo.

"What is family-friendly depends on where your family is," she explained.

Because Roemer's family lives in Washington, it would suit him better to work shorter hours five days a week.

But Maloney's family is in New York City, too far for a daily commute. So she would rather work late for three days, then go home for long weekends with her husband and daughters, ages 7 and 14.

Although an exact breakdown of the incoming Congress was not available, the trend is that fewer new House members move their families to Washington.

Insecurity about reelection prospects in a fickle political climate is one factor; so is preference for what many regard as a superior quality of life outside the Beltway.

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Many also prefer the current schedule because it enables them to spend more time with constituents.

"It's unrealistic to think we can be away from our districts for three weeks at a time," said Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles), who has two grown children but still goes back to California at least every other week.

The schedule followed by most representatives of Western states makes it clear that theirs is not a job for those with a fear of flying--or an above-average need for sleep.

Coppersmith, who has children ages 8, 6 and 3, estimated that he has spent one-seventh of the last two years aloft.

On Mondays, he would get up in time to drive his kids' school car-pool, go to his district office until 4 p.m., then fly to Washington, where he arrived around midnight.

"There I relived my college and law school days by living in a dump on Capitol Hill. For three days, I would work straight through, then race to Dulles (airport) to get the one nonstop to Phoenix. I'd get home by 7:15 p.m. because of the time difference and put the kids to bed."

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