Pace of Congress tests family values

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- This was supposed to be the family-friendly Congress. These were lawmakers who came to power in November hailing the importance of family values and -- in case anyone missed the point -- pushing Big Bird strollers through the Capitol.

The first order of business was to form a task force to come up with a schedule that would consider spouses and children, vacations and quality time.

The most recent order of business? Divorce.

Three freshmen members of Congress have announced that they're filing for divorce. Three more are about to, says one House member.

Between the first 100-day sprint and the protracted budget battles, the rigors of the 104th Congress appear to have shaken the personal lives of a number of legislators, especially the newcomers.

"It's taken a severe emotional toll on all the members," says Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, head of the Republican caucus. "It's been a long, grueling year. I haven't been home for 43 days. I've never been away from home this long."

Mark W. Neumann, a Wisconsin Republican, has criticized his leadership for failing to take seriously the family lives of lawmakers. "To say this job has had an impact on my family would be an understatement," he says.

Certainly, politicians have never been a stranger to marital problems or divorce. But the recently announced split-ups among House freshmen are noteworthy because of the strong "family values" theme that helped bring some to Congress last year.

Jim Bunn of Oregon and Jon Christensen of Nebraska, two of those who are divorcing, had received hefty support from the Christian Coalition.

And Enid Greene Waldholtz, who filed for divorce last month after her husband disappeared amid an inquiry into her campaign finances, had earlier become the symbol of the family-friendly Congress when Speaker Newt Gingrich gave her a baby shower and set aside a small room off the House chamber so she could get off her feet between floor votes.

None of those getting divorced blame the workload in Congress for it. In Mr. Christensen's case, his wife, Meredith, a prominent Republican fund-raiser, took the unusual step of taking responsibility for the divorce, admitting she had been unfaithful.

And Mr. Christensen and Mr. Bunn, both of whom declined to be interviewed for this article, have said their marital problems predated their elections to Congress.

"But Congress doesn't help," a tearful Mr. Bunn, the father of five, told The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper. "With all due respect to the leaders, there is nothing family-friendly about this Congress, except the legislation."

Some have suggested hypocrisy on the part of such vigorous pro-family conservatives as Mr. Bunn who are dissolving their own families. Others take issue with that contention.

"If people come to town supported by religious conservatives and are spending their evenings in strip bars and honky tonks, that strikes me as hypocrisy," says Charles Cook, publisher of a political newsletter. "But working ungodly hours and having their family lives fall apart, I don't know if it's hypocritical as much as it's perhaps ironic."

Facing choices

Still, Mr. Bunn, who turns 39 tomorrow, was concerned enough about the fallout from his personal situation to forgo a run for the Senate seat vacated this year by fellow Republican Bob Packwood.

Tom Barrett, a psychologist and informal counselor to some lawmakers, says the personal cost of this year's breakneck session has been "pretty staggering."

"One of the biggest surprises with this Congress is that it has been far less family-friendly than they expected it would be," says Dr. Barrett. "While trying to deal with the deficit, they themselves have done an enormous amount of deficit spending in their personal lives."

A number of House members say they've taken heed of their colleagues' struggles.

"I didn't run for Congress to lose my family," says Rep. Randy Tate, a Republican freshman from Washington state.

Unlike much of the freshman class, Mr. Tate brought his wife and 16-month-old daughter here with him. And he set up an ironclad schedule in which Sundays and early mornings are devoted to his family.

Even so, the demands of the job became so overwhelming that, last summer, he and several other House freshmen complained to Majority Leader Dick Armey.

"Enough members felt it was time to have a schedule where we could be congressmen and women and be husbands and wives, fathers and mothers at the same time," says Mr. Tate. "You shouldn't have to choose."

harder to make the schedule more predictable. "It's getting less worse," joked Mr. Tate.

Mr. Armey was sympathetic but unapologetic.

circumstances and with the best of intentions means a legacy of broken promises to families," said Mr. Armey, a 12-year veteran. "And this was the worst year in memory. It was the first year of a revolution."

Democrats -- and some maverick freshman Republicans -- who challenge the leadership and prolong debate.

Some successes

Mr. Neumann said he was told by a member of the leadership that "if you have children, you should not serve in Congress."

A father of three, Mr. Neumann said he was criticized for missing a budget vote to take his son deer-hunting -- a tradition of four generations in the family -- but believes he made the right decision.

Marianne Gingrich, wife of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, is the co-chairman of the committee set up at the start of the session to factor the family into the work life of House members. The group, she says, has had some success.

A small "members and family room" was moved to a larger space, she says. And she notes that members recessed after the first 93, as opposed to 100, days, so their spring break would coincide with many of their children's.

"Given the year we've had, it could have been worse," she says.

But she acknowledges that a family-oriented schedule is a challenge, especially since the members don't agree on what kind of schedule they'd like best.

Ms. Gingrich says that, for her part, the greater stress comes from spouses being left out when it comes to finding work. She and other spouses say that their choices are limited because of potential conflicts of interest and that there are no ethics rules to guide them.

Employment difficulties

Kendel Ehrlich, wife of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a freshman Republican from Baltimore County, found that out after leaving her job as an assistant public defender in February because of the demands of being a congressman's wife.

In searching for a less time-consuming job, she found that some employers wanted to hire her for the wrong reasons -- because of her husband's position. Others steered clear for the same reason.

"It's much more of a double-edged sword than I ever anticipated," says Ms. Ehrlich, who finally found a suitable job last month.

For her part, Ms. Ehrlich says, she and her husband have had an easier time adapting to the new lifestyle than have most congressional couples, largely because of the short distance between Baltimore and Washington.

"If you come in with a strong marriage, you can maintain it," she said. "If you come in with a not-so-strong marriage, it can blow apart fairly quickly."

Dr. Barrett says a number of spouses -- and members themselves -- became discouraged when the relief they expected after the first 100 days never arrived.

"They saw that this is not a stretch of road, this is turning into a style of life," he says. "The intensity of the first hundred days never really subsided. And now they're running on empty."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
68°