When Paul Ryan became House Speaker a few weeks ago, he made it clear that he has no intention of spending too much time in Washington. His wife and children are in Wisconsin, he pointed out, and he plans to commute, as he’s done since he got elected to Congress. “I just work here,” he told CNN, “I don’t live here.”
I have great sympathy for Ryan’s urge to strike a balance between family and work. It is very, very tough for every member, let alone the Speaker, to live and work far from home, and to weigh constantly whether to be in Washington or back in the district. I remember that when I served in Congress, I felt I was in the wrong place wherever I happened to be. If I was home in Indiana, I missed important meetings on Capitol Hill. When I was in Washington, the calendar in Indiana was filled with events I should have been attending.
Yet while we should sympathize with the compromises members of Congress have to make between their duties in Washington and their responsibilities back home, there’s no question where they must be to discharge their public responsibilities. If we want a well-functioning Congress, they need to be in Washington more.
When I first got elected to Congress in 1964, members didn’t have to split time between their colleagues on Capitol Hill and their families back in the district, because most of us moved our families to Washington. But over the years, the politics of the country have grown strongly anti-Washington. Members of Congress do not want to be associated with the city. They want to show they haven’t been seduced by the lifestyle of the Nation’s Capital or adopted an “inside-the-beltway” mindset. They take pride in rejecting the elitism of Washington. Today’s politics make it hard to argue that members should be spending more time on Capitol Hill.
Yet as Washington Post writer Dana Milbank noted recently in an insightful column on the topic, “It’s no mere coincidence that in the time this trend has taken hold, much of what had previously existed in Washington disappeared: civility, budget discipline, big bipartisan legislation and just general competence. In place of this have come bickering, showdowns, shutdowns and the endless targeting of each other for defeat in the next election.”
Expanding the Capitol Hill workweek, in other words, isn’t just a symbolic gesture. It’s one of the keys to reversing congressional dysfunction.
For starters, you have to get to know your colleagues in order to do business with them. The amenities are crucial in politics, even more than in most spheres of working life. In any legislature, whether it’s on Capitol Hill or in a state capital or in City Hall, the very nature of the job is going to involve disagreement. Yet everyone there is there to solve problems together; they have no choice but to work together. It’s hard to attack a person you know well, but even more important, getting to know one another — and one another’s families — is an essential lubricant for resolving the issues you confront together.
Second, drafting legislation is highly demanding, because the core of it involves building consensus. This takes time. It can’t be forced. Members have to have the time and room to consider the options, look for common ground, and think through alternatives. Politicians, in other words, need sufficient time to be good politicians and good legislators. The array of tough issues that face Congress can’t be dealt with by part-time legislators.
Which is what they are right now. Members of Congress work hard, but they do not work hard at legislating. They work hard at constituent relations and raising money and campaigning. Legislating, whether we like it or not, takes a five-day week, not the three they put in at the moment.
What I’m arguing for here will not be popular with members of Congress, and it certainly won’t get a warm reception from their families. But they are elected to do the job of legislating. For the good of the institution they serve and the work product they owe the nation, members need to spend more time in Washington.
Lee Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.