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Freshmen Have to Decide Where Families Live

Here come the commuters. Welcome the cot-dwellers, the frequent fliers and the couch surfers.

Many members of the incoming freshman class — the bulk of whom campaigned against Washington — are planning to spend as little time as possible within the limits of the city they raged against. And that means not moving their families to their new city of employment.

The phenomenon of the commuting lawmaker is nothing new. But this class, particularly its Republican majority, faces competing imperatives: maintaining their outsider bona fides and the family values so important to their platform.

The many freshmen who will leave their families back home as they work in Washington do so against the counsel of some of their senior colleagues, who advise keeping family together, even if it means fewer visits to the home district.

And most do so feeling torn between work and family.

Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) says he has long advised more junior colleagues, including members of the incoming freshman class, to bring their families to the Washington area if at all feasible. The rigors of commuting take a heavy toll on family life, he says.

“They say that a politician looks to the next election and a statesman looks to the next generation,” the Arizona Republican says. “When you have the next generation growing up literally around your knees, that becomes the main promise in your mind.”

Yet the decision of whether to move one’s family to Washington is fraught with political, financial and logistical considerations. 

Franks regrets that he hasn’t followed his own advice. His wife, he says, has a “strong support system” in Arizona, and is reluctant to bring the couple’s 2-year-old twins to Washington.

“It creates a real conflict in your heart,” he says.

Most frequently, those who choose to leave their families in their districts do so to avoid the appearance of having “gone Washington.”

Cautionary tales abound. One of the most crushing blows that led to the defeat of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in 2004 was a commercial accusing him of having gone native in the wilds of Washington. The devastating ad featured a looped video clip of Daschle proudly declaring “I am a D.C. resident!”

This campaign season, another Majority Leader, Harry Reid (D-Nev.), was stung by opponent Sharron Angle’s attacks on his Washington living quarters: an apartment in the Ritz Carlton.

Most freshmen say their decision to be commuting legislators was dictated in part by their families and in part by the demands of the districts they narrowly won.

“Honestly, a little of each,” answers Rep.-elect Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), when asked if his decision to travel back and forth to Kansas was dictated by politics or family dynamics. His son is a sophomore in college, and his wife will sometimes accompany him to Washington, he says. People who spend too much time away from their home “become disconnected from voters,” Pompeo says. “It is my deep intent not to let that happen.”

Rep.-elect Ben Quayle knows firsthand about balancing Congressional work and family life. He was born three days after his father, former vice president Dan Quayle, was elected to the House. The younger Quayle grew up in Virginia and his father served as a Representative and later as a Senator.

Despite (or perhaps because of) that pedigree, the Arizona Republican says he wants to remain more closely tied to the voters who sent him to Washington. Moving, he says, would disrupt his wife’s career and put distance — literal and figurative — between him and his constituents. “I think it’s important that you make it back to the district,” he says. “A lot of people … get sequestered back on the East Coast.”

Some say they, like some of their more senior colleagues, might set up more permanent living arrangement in Washington once they have a few re-elections under their belts, or if they find the commute too onerous. And almost all say it was a difficult decision.

For many, the decision not to move their families to D.C. is a money matter. Rent in the Washington area is notoriously expensive, and Members of Congress get no stipend for housing, only for commuting. And even if they moved the family to the D.C. area, they would still have to maintain a residence back in their district.

Rep.-elect Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), who plans to be on the 4 p.m. U.S. Airways flight home to Indianapolis from Washington every week, says he was shocked by the cost of D.C. housing. Rent on a 600-foot studio on Capitol Hill is more than he pays in mortgage back home, he says. 

Rokita, whose job as the Indiana Secretary of State probably doesn’t qualify him as one of the wealthiest Members of Congress, used to be skeptical of Congressional cot-dwellers. Now, he might end up as one of them. “Initially, I thought those guys who slept in their offices were doing it as political stunts, but I now understand,” he says.

When they are solo in Washington, many members resort to uncomfortable, but affordable, living arrangements.

Some Members, such as Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), camp out in their offices. Others shack up in group houses — some of which sound like a cross between “The Golden Girls” and “Animal House.”

Those kinds of compromises mean there is envy of Members whose districts are close enough to Washington that they can cast a late vote and still make it home for dinner. They have the best of both worlds, their fellow lawmakers agree.

“As much as I love Arizona and the weather here, I’d gladly trade its location with Northern Virginia,” Franks said. “If,” he adds, “we could pack it with enough conservatives.”

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