Reflecting on Generations of Service
Growing up, oftentimes, children see their parents’ jobs in very personal terms. Being the son of a Member of Congress, and coming from a long line of family Members who have held public office, I was the one child in my family who actually set his sights on following in my father’s footsteps.
Fifty-two years ago, my father, Peter H.B. Frelinghuysen, entered the House of Representatives as a Member of the 83rd Congress and part of a Republican majority. As he often says, he “came in with Eisenhower,” and ended up serving from 1953 to 1974.
From as early as I can remember, I was actively interested in my father’s work. I was the child who volunteered to keep him company, attending parades, picnics, pancake breakfasts and tag along with him during campaign stops.
I enjoyed the opportunity to help hand out campaign buttons, man the telephones and stand at his side as he shook hands. I learned firsthand that no matter what your age, all hands are welcome.
In 1994, I was fortunate to be one of 52 new Republican Members elected to the House, helping our party take control of the House for the first time in 40 years. I was elected to represent virtually the same district in New Jersey that my father had represented 30 years earlier — Morris and Somerset counties, and now parts of Sussex, Essex and Passaic.
My father’s Congress was quite different than the one we work in today.
In the “old days,” my father, now 89 years old, moved our family to Washington when he was first elected. Traditionally, Members lived here year-round, children went to local schools, and families usually went home only during recesses.
In 1953, when my father was elected to his first term, many Americans were of the mindset that serving in the House was a part-time job. Quite the contrary. With a small staff and a paycheck of $12,500, Members worked long hours and some practiced law or did other professions on the side to supplement their income.
Also, Members of Congress from my father’s era, especially new Members, were “seen but not heard” as a rule, and great deference was given to incumbents and leadership. Rank-and-file Members did as they were told, and they had to build up seniority before stepping into the fray. Such is not the case today.
Today, Members are paid better and offices are well-staffed with many more employees in Washington and their respective district offices. Members are also no longer allowed to hold other jobs, but they continue to work long hours. With regards to family, the marvels of technology and the advancement of air and rail transportation have ensured that most Members can get back and forth to their districts with little hassle or frustration, meaning that families no longer need to live in Washington full-time.
As a child living in Washington 50 years ago, one infamous day stands out in my mind. In March 1954, I remember my father coming home from work and telling us that there had been a shooting at the Capitol and that he had been an eyewitness. He explained that Puerto Rican nationalists had made their way up to the House Visitors Gallery and proceeded to shoot at Members on the floor. At the time, I was too young to understand the significance of what had occurred. However, it became much more real when he explained to us that several of his colleagues and friends had been shot and hospitalized.
Amazingly, he told us later that no one had been killed despite the fact that nearly 250 Members of Congress were on the floor of the House at the time. Today, reminders of that tragic day are still visible on the House floor. A penny-sized bullet hole still marks a table top and desk drawer used by Republicans when they speak on the floor of the House.
While I never had the opportunity to serve alongside my father in Congress, I still am constantly amazed by the number of people who come up to me and say how much they appreciate the things my father did for them, their families and their friends. Not only are their stories inspiring, but they are also motivating.
The opportunity as a child to watch my father serve in the House and to hear and learn about his work encouraged me to follow in his footsteps. For all the years that I tagged along with my father to events, the most important thing he taught me was that there is no greater priority than constituent service. For this lesson I am eternally gratefully to him and remain incredibly appreciative of his frank counsel and invaluable support.
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) has been a Member of Congress since 1995.