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Sometimes Congressional Spouses Need Staff Management, Too | Commentary

After a few days of watching the trial of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a lot of Americans learned what a lot of congressional staff already know: Some politicians’ spouses are more than a handful to manage, and can cause angst and grief for the staff who serve the elected official.

While Maureen McDonnell is more like the exception than the rule, it’s still a stark reminder that many staff experience conflict with a member’s family.

Part of the challenge begins during the campaign for Congress, when family implications to public service are not richly considered. In the 1985 Congressional Management Foundation book, “Politicians and their Spouses’ Careers,” former Rep. Barber Conable wrote, “Unhappily, the quest is so exciting and encompassing, and the prerequisites are so demanding, that other issues are likely to consume the attention of the candidate. The most we can hope, then, is that after the euphoria of election, prompt attention will be given for the marriage of the high-pressure and highly unusual new status.”

There is absolutely no way to prepare a family for the logistical requirements, psychological impact and harrowing public scrutiny that begins when your beloved raises his or her hand and takes the oath of office. (If there was a way to prepare, a lot fewer people would actually run for office.) Nonetheless, for congressional staff who must interact with and manage the demands of congressional families, there are some lessons the CMF has learned over the years that can ease the pain.

First, set expectations about the congressional schedule. We heard one story of a new congressional spouse going through orientation asserting to a presenter, “My husband made it clear he would be home for dinner every night.” The spouse was politely informed that the United States Congress doesn’t really care if dinner is getting cold on the table. Things may have improved slightly in recent years — a 2011 CMF-Society for Human Resource Management survey of more than two dozen House members found the additional recesses and increased attention to batching votes has led to members feeling the schedule is more predictable.

Nonetheless, congressional schedules will always remain hectic. The member’s family must be made aware that unforeseen and last-minute changes will happen, whether because of international crises, end-of-session craziness or a committee chairman in a bad mood on a Thursday night. Senior staff should have an honest, heart-to-heart conversation with the spouse. Sample daily schedules should be shared, and the long-term calendar discussed.

Second, establish clear lines of communication between the congressional office and the family — especially between the scheduler and the spouse. We won’t go as far to say that a good spouse-scheduler working relationship is more important than a good member-chief of staff relationship — but it’s pretty darn close.

Third, families must get clear briefings on their legal obligations that come with the member pin. Personal wealth disclosure requirements, lobbying activity, and now investment activity are unique and stringent reporting requirements in Congress. Spouses are often shocked and upset when they learn that the roving microscope of transparency is now affixed on their (previously private) affairs.

Finally, at the core of balancing family relationships and activities and official work is the member. He or she must take an active role in establishing boundaries, roles and priorities. Legislators might think this is impossible, but it can be done. Twenty-five years ago, an incumbent was seeking higher office. It was a brutal schedule, requiring significant travel, unprecedented fund raising and intense media scrutiny. Yet, throughout the fall campaign, the candidate did not miss a single football game his high school-age son played in (home and away). The candidate was Vice President Al Gore, the race was the 2000 presidential election. Managing families is often about managing priorities, and those can only come from the elected official.

Bradford Fitch is president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, and a former congressional staffer.

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