For Some Members’ Families, D.C. Is the Place to Be
Not long after freshman Rep. Luke Messer won his seat in 2012, he was driving in Indiana with his family — three children, ages 10 and under — and asked them about moving to Washington, D.C.
“I turned around and said, ‘Well, what do you guys think?’” the Indiana Republican said. “They said, ‘If we’re going to go, let’s just go.’ They came [to D.C.] right away.”
Messer and his wife, Jennifer, and their children, Emma, Ava and Hudson, moved to the Virginia suburbs and enjoy what Messer calls a “very normal” day-to-day life. Family dinners are at home and when votes are scheduled late in the evening, he orders from We, the Pizza on the Hill and has the family join him in the Capitol.
“I think it’s a little, maybe, counterintuitive to the public, but in a lot of ways it keeps you more grounded,” Messer said. “My life is more like the life of folks back home in that most evenings I go home and have dinner with my family. If you don’t have your family here, that’s just not true. Most nights, you are away from your family and only seeing them a few nights a month.”
A small group of members of Congress are embracing the lifestyle that Messer enjoys: picking up and moving their families to the District. It’s a practice that was once commonplace among members in both chambers, before the fear of being tied too closely to Washington took hold in the body politic. But some in D.C. hope that having loved ones and children nearby could usher in more civility, understanding and even friendship in an oft-divided institution.
While there is no hard and fast evidence of what constitutes their true homes, at least anecdotally, several members appear more at ease living in Washington.
‘I Get to See Them at Night’
A number of members in the Indiana delegation have embraced this practice; former Rep. Mike Pence, now governor of the state, is pointed to as a recent ringleader.
“Mike Pence told me, you will hug me one day when you realize having your family here will help,” Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., told CQ Roll Call in 2011. “It’s not about going to Washington. It’s about my family being my priority. I get to see them at night. I get to see them in the morning. When I go back home, I work the district very hard. I can pack it from morning until evening.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio recently put his West Miami home on the market to move his wife, Jeanette, and three kids — Dominick is 6, Anthony is 8 and Daniella is 11 — closer to Washington. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand lives with her husband and two children, a 10-year old and a 5-year-old, on Capitol Hill. When the Senate is in session, she drops them off at and picks them up from school; the family maintains a primary residence in Brunswick, N.Y.
Clarine Nardi Riddle was former Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman’s chief of staff. Now an attorney in D.C, she is a co-founder of No Labels, an organization seeking to promote civility and compromise in Washington. She remembers Lieberman bringing his family to D.C.
“He was advised by a number of colleagues to bring his family with him to D.C. because it would make for keeping the family together, a support system, a way for the family to connect to the broader community and get to know the other families in the Senate,” she said. “He took that really to heart.”
She said No Labels wants changes in the congressional schedule, with more consecutive days in session and coordinated House-Senate calendars. This meshes with having families nearby. “It’s harder to attack someone that you know. To the extent to which the calendar, the week’s schedule of events, can encourage people to get to know each other, to work with each other, then No Labels’ purpose is to help to stop the fighting and start the fixing,” she said.
Messer, who is the Republican class president, agreed.
“I think the lack of people here has changed Washington culture and not for the better,” he said.
Back in the Day
Matthew Wasniewski, the historian for the House of Representatives, said in the 19th century that congressional life was not suitable for families in D.C. — sessions were short and there was little appropriate housing. However, when the schedule shifted to be more year-round and members served more terms in office, some families (not all, he noted) became part of the fabric of the city.
The House historian’s office has among its documents a transcript of a 2007 interview with Cokie Roberts, journalist and daughter of late Democratic Reps. Hale and Lindy Boggs of Louisiana, who spent much of the late 1950s and early ’60s in D.C.
“Everybody knew each other, and that is a huge change from now,” she said in the interview. “Because transportation was such that we were here, … members were not going home on weekends, … people played bridge. People did get to know each other. And there was that sense that after the sun goes down, we’re all friends. You’d see each other at church, you’d see each other at school events.”
Riddle pointed to a 2012 book, “The Spirit of Compromise: Why Governing Demands It and Campaigning Undermines It,” that refers to the influence of former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. “He wanted them to spend more time campaigning in their districts,” the book from Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson reads. “As Representative Jim Cooper remembers, ‘soon everyone belonged to the Tuesday —Thursday Club. Members became strangers, the easier for them to fight.’ The pattern persists today in even more exaggerated form.”
Location, Location, Location
Logistics can be tricky for those who want their families nearby. Buy a home? Rent? Return to the home state in the summer? (According to Trulia, the median sales price for homes in Capitol Hill is near $540,000; in Arlington, Va., it is $513,000.)
Stutzman home-schools his children, whereas Messer’s children attend public school in the D.C. area. Roberts attended a Catholic private school in Bethesda, Md., the Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart.
In terms of financing, it’s a balancing act. Members have an allowance for congressional travel that’s combined with other office expenses. The House Members’ Representational Allowance hovers around $1.2 million a year — it’s determined from a base allowance and then add-ons, such as the mileage between D.C. and the furthest point in a district. Members who arrive later, like Democratic Rep. Robin Kelly, who was sworn in to represent her Illinois district in April, get fewer funds. Those with districts farther away, like Hawaii Democratic Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, are allocated more: She receives $1,315,289.
Members can divvy the MRA among office expenses and travel expenses, with limitations, such as salary caps. The average allowance in the Senate, according to the Congressional Research Service, is $3,209,103.
Most members of Congress, though, choose to keep their families in their home states. (Indiana’s former Sen. Richard G. Lugar was criticized for losing touch with his state’s needs; he lost his primary election in 2012.)
Republican Rep. Brad Wenstrup, who welcomed his first child early in November, said his family would stay in Cincinnati. “Honestly, it was never really a question,” he told CQ Roll Call. “Our family and friends are almost all in the area and we love it here.”
Rep. Rodney Davis — his wife and three children live in Taylorville, Ill. — says electronic means of communication are his saving grace, as well as maintaining perspective. “I will tell you that if missing an event to have some time with the family costs me an election, I’ve made the right decision,” he said in an earlier interview. “I’ll take the family.”