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California and the West | THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION
/ FAYE FIORE

A Family Dilemma in the Halls of Power

March 17, 1998|FAYE FIORE

Seldom has Rep. Jane Harman felt as powerless as she did the night she tried, by fax and phone, to help her 11-year-old son with his math homework.

She was in her office in Washington. Her husband was on a business trip. Her son was at home in Marina del Rey with a sitter, struggling over long division. It wasn't working.

"I feel like I don't have any parents," the boy told his mother, then a freshman Democrat. Boom. Harman sold the house and moved the children to Washington.

For all the talk of family values, few institutions seem to value the family less than Congress.

The job essentially requires that a member be one of two places--in the Capitol tending to business or in the district tending to constituents. For a member with a young family, that doesn't leave much time for tending to the children.

The House and Senate keep schedules that are as maddening as they are unpredictable: They don't get down to business until noon, and they make up for it by working past 9. Sometimes there are votes on Fridays and Mondays, sometimes there aren't. Dinner with the family is a luxury.

Word has circulated that there have been at least 12 divorces in 1994's 86-member freshman class; it's an unofficial tally, but it struck some as a lot.

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"This place takes a high toll on families, and it's not surprising that it would take a high toll on marriages," said Rep. Tim Roemer, an Indiana Democrat and father of three. "But it doesn't have to do that."

Still, it was that way under the Democrats, and it is that way under the Republicans. In the culture of Congress, it is a given that public service takes its pound of flesh from the public servant's family.

The result is a revolving door of parent legislators, a sort of unofficial term limit on younger members who serve only as long as they can stand hardly ever seeing their children.

Exit New York Reps. Susan Molinari and Bill Paxon, two GOP rising stars who want to spend more time with their 2-year-old daughter. Enter Mary Bono, widow of Sonny and mother of his two young children, running to fill his Palm Springs seat.

It was a weird scene on Capitol Hill the other day when House Speaker Newt Gingrich appeared at a news conference to announce legislation to save the Salton Sea, and was asked about Paxon's shocking decision this month to throw it all away for his little girl.

"We all know public life takes its toll on the family," Gingrich said matter-of-factly, as candidate Bono stood just behind him.

Does she know what she's getting into? some privately wondered. When the Republicans took control of the House in 1994, Gingrich promised a more family-friendly Congress, a Congress that would be--here's a concept--"humane."

Then the new ruling party launched into the most grueling schedule in memory. It got so bad that some members formed the Task Force on Family Quality of Life and fired off letters demanding a more predictable schedule. They threatened to have 70 children stage a sit-in on the House floor.

What they got was a room in the Capitol where parents could decompress with their children. It even has a microwave oven "so families can have dinner together," one member noted.

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The dilemma is especially bad for Californians, who have a five-hour flight and jet lag to negotiate, not to mention $1,500 air fare for a family of four.

But there are no easy solutions. Move the family to Washington and open yourself to criticism that you are out of touch with your district. Leave the family in California and you are out of touch with the children.

Right now, it's not so bad. Congress is going home at 6. Mondays and Fridays are pretty slow days. But the lull is deceiving, less a function of family sensitivity than of a Congress that has, in the assessment of the National Journal, "Gone Fishin'."

Even in the best of times, Rep. Brian Bilbray, a San Diego Republican and father of two, will miss his son's basketball tournament finals. He never gets to see his daughter at her sailing class.

"Those are memories I'll never have," he conceded.

It's not the long hours they mind so much; it's the wasted ones. They knew going in that congressional life was demanding. But the mornings whiled away with nonsense, the tradition of wearing legislators down with 2 a.m. sessions until they finally just pass the bill--those have got to go, they say.

Even so, many legislators with children say that it's possible to be a good parent and a good legislator. Some just draw the line. Bilbray makes Sunday family day. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) holds sacred the Jewish Sabbath, scheduling no business from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), a father of five, once declared that if Presidents Bush and Reagan came into his district on a Sunday, "I wouldn't go."

At some level, they conclude, it's worth it. Bilbray says that if he can give his children a balanced budget for their graduations, then he has done the right thing. And Harman is, after all, giving up Congress to run for governor.

Regardless of politics or party, for better or for worse, most of them say they are trying to change the world for all children--even if in the process, they make it a little harder for their own.

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