GOP agenda will keep congressional freshmen running at breakneck speed


Imagine riding a speeding train and being told you should get off and rest a while -- but they won't stop the train. That's pretty much the dilemma facing the wired but already worn out House Republican freshmen.

Incoming Speaker Newt Gingrich has promised them a "family-friendly" schedule that allows more time for spouses and children.

Yesterday, at their orientation retreat in Baltimore, the freshmen were exhorted not to become so caught up in their political missions that they miss personal moments with their loved ones and private moments for themselves.

"Do not become so enamored and so accustomed to being in the spotlight that you lose the art of getting out of it," Tom Barrett, a spiritual and personal counselor to many members of Congress, said in a luncheon address at the Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore Hotel. "When you leave, you may miss Washington, but Washington won't miss you. . . . There is only one place where your absence will be significantly felt and that is in your home."

No time off

Yet the 73 newly elected members of the first Republican majority in 40 years are being pushed at such a breakneck pace that advice about pacing is very hard to follow. Many of them have had no time off since they began actively campaigning for their seats a year ago or longer. After nearly a month of orientation and moving to Washington, they'll get only a few days break over the Christmas holidays before they are sworn into office Jan. 4.

After that, Mr. Gingrich has said they will work straight through their first 100 days in order to make sure they can complete the agenda the Republicans promised in their "Contract with America."

House members will get weekends off at first, but even those breaks may go if time is running short at the end. The old Democratic schedule of two weeks off in January, and a 10-day break in mid-February is gone.

"I'm cranky already," said Rep.-elect Barbara Cubin, a former state legislator from Wyoming. "None of us have had more than five hours' sleep a night in weeks. This is a party that talks about family values, but we have no time at all to see our families. Don't they realize people need to rest?"

That may be part of the problem with Mr. Gingrich. Despite his intellectual support for the idea of a healthier congressional work schedule, his own energy level is so high, friends say, he doesn't understand that others can't keep up.

"Newt wants a 35-hour day and a nine-day week," said Vin Weber, a former congressman and close friend of Mr. Gingrich who is acting as a co-host of the three-day freshman program here. "He has an enormous capacity for work himself but he doesn't realize that others do not. The freshmen are going to have to try to rein him in."

Rep.-elect Sue Myrick, former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., said the freshmen recognize that the first 100 days are going to involve special sacrifices because of the contract commitment to bring 10 relatively complicated issues to the House floor for a vote within that period.

Seeking long weekends

But she said they are pushing for at least some long weekends during those first three months.

"Here it is two weeks before Christmas and I haven't done any shopping, and I still have to move," said Ms. Myrick, who is trying to keep her schedule clear for the brief period she has at home over the holidays. "We just have to have some personal time."

The phenomenon of lawmakers too busy to breathe did not arrive with the incoming Republicans. For years, members of Congress have been struggling to keep up with increasing demands for attention from constituents. House members are also on a nonstop fund-raising drive to finance their ever more expensive careers.

A weary-looking Rep.-elect Tom Davis of Virginia said he went home to his Fairfax County district Thursday night after the first day of freshman seminars to speak to two different groups before returning to Baltimore yesterday morning.

The work overload is so great it has led to many divorces and more than a few cases of alcoholism and drug abuse, said Mr. Weber, whose own marriage was one of the casualties.

Mr. Barrett urged the GOP freshmen yesterday not to allow their commitment to the contract to be an excuse for running themselves and their relationships into the ground.

"I hope you won't fill up your weekends back in the district campaigning because you're going to sprint all week while you're in Washington," he said. "Right now you're running on the joy and excitement and adrenalin as well as the fear of what's going on. But somewhere along the line you've got to take the stress off."

Rep.-elect Michael Patrick Flanagan of Chicago, the novice who upset 18-term veteran Dan Rostenkowski, is ignoring that advice. He plans to fly home every weekend to meet with constituents. But he's only 32 and not married.

Rep.-elect Sue Kelly of New York, who at 58 contends she could be the mother of at least half of her freshmen colleagues, says her greater life experience has taught her the importance of maintaining a balance between professional and personal interests.

Her husband of 36 years will stay home in Westchester County to tend to his business interests and she'll come back every weekend to sing in the church choir.

"It's my grounding," Mrs. Kelly said. "I told the choir director to fax me the music every week. I'll be in the alto section on Sunday."

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