When Paul Ryan became speaker of the House on Oct. 29, 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. “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 tough for every member to live and work far from home, and to constantly weigh whether to be in Washington or back in the district.
But sympathy aside, there’s no question where members must be to discharge their public responsibilities. If we want a better functioning Congress, its members need to be in Washington – despite their increasing inclination to flee the capital whenever possible.
As The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank noted in a recent column: “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.”
In this case, it isn’t true that familiarity breeds contempt. You have to get to know your colleagues in order to do business with them. Legislative work lends itself to disagreement, but legislators are elected to solve problems as a group; they have no choice but to work together.
Beyond that, drafting legislation is highly demanding because it involves building consensus. This takes time. It can’t be forced. The array of tough issues Congress faces can’t be dealt with by legislators who work three days a week, as has become commonplace in Washington.
What I’m arguing for will not get a warm reception in Congress – and it certainly won’t be popular with members’ families. But for the good of the institution they serve and the work product they owe the nation, members of Congress need to spend more time in Washington.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He represented Indiana’s 9th Congressional District as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.