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In his recent retirement announcement, Paul Ryan said, “It’s easy for it to take over everything in your life.” The Speaker of the House added, “If I am here for one more term, my kids will only have ever known me as a weekend dad. I just can’t let that happen.”
Many find it hard to believe that Ryan would put his family above one of the most powerful positions in our nation’s capital. Most politicians never willingly forego the power that comes from high office. I have no insight into Ryan’s motivations, but in preparation for this article, I interviewed the wife of an eight-term congressman, and she confirmed that public office has an enormous impact on members and their families.
First, the background. Lee Terry represented Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district from 1999 to 2015. Prior to winning a house seat, he had served in Omaha city politics and had a successful law practice. When elected, his two boys were pre-school age. (Their third son was born later.) Neither Lee nor his wife, Robyn, came from wealthy families and they hadn’t accumulated much savings at this point in their careers.
Being a congressperson or senator is like having three jobs that consume every waking moment. There are congressional duties, constituent services in the home district, and near continuous campaigning and fundraising. For the first few months, Lee’s family lived in Omaha, but since he was seldom home, they decided to move to Washington D.C. That didn’t work as expected, so they ended up returning to Omaha. In frustration, they realized that neither location allowed for a normal family life.
When they lived in Omaha, Lee spent his at-home weekends going to meetings and events. The public perception is that when a congressperson is home, they’re on vacation. Not true. The life of a legislator at home is all work, and Lee couldn’t even fly back and forth without other passengers interrupting him as he tried to catch up with his work. Everyone jockeys to meet their legislator, especially when they’re new. During his first three months in office, Lee literally worked until 8:00 PM every night. People wanted to meet with the new congressman, and many wanted the congressman to tour their business. Events from parades to dinners to breakfast get-togethers were constant. Few invites were declined because elections fall every two years and raising campaign money becomes a constant requirement. At first, Lee and Robyn tried to set Sunday aside as a “no touch day”. Then Sunday dinner as a “No touch time.” Neither worked. They needed to line-out time on the schedule for family events, and at times that didn’t work. Weekends became a blur. For the entire sixteen years, home life was rife with interruptions, and no holidays were private except for Christmas. Worse, when they were able to arrange a family outing, everyone felt free to approach Lee to express an opinion, ask for a favor, or merely say hello.
When they moved to Washington D.C., they assumed Lee would be home in the evenings with his wife and young children. Except that he still needed to return to Omaha most weekends, and many of his weeknights included evening events or occasionally votes. Robyn had expected an active social life with other spouses, but it was not as active as she supposed. Only about twenty percent of congressional families live in D.C., and those that did were spread all over the city. Except for friends in the immediate neighborhood, social interaction with other spouses was limited to formal events. Robyn began to feel isolated. Her large cadre of friends and relatives remained in Omaha. She had no relationship or history with local health providers. Then their oldest reached school age and she wanted her son to attend public school with his friends in Omaha.
Moving to D.C. did make Lee’s Omaha-based work easier. He could perform his district duties without trying to balance family life and he felt less guilt about being pulled away from home so often. Despite this positive aspect of living in D.C., they moved back to Omaha.
As children of elected officials get older, they also sacrifice for their parent’s profession. The biggest problem was loss of anonymity, which is very difficult for teenagers. On occasion, they heard criticisms of their father, in the media, at school, or at social gatherings. The boys were also admonished to always behave properly and not get in any newsworthy trouble.
Dealing with reality versus perception presented another challenge. Issues and people in the media are distorted for political purposes. Politicians understand that the opposition will build misperceptions about who they are, what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it. It comes with the territory. But spouses, children, and other relatives must live daily with slanted attacks on one of their beloved family members.
Money presented another sacrifice. Lee’s congressional salary when elected was $136,700. Over the years, he would have done better financially if he had continued to build his law practice. He and his wife understood this when they chose public service, but it still startled them to watch their peers out-earn them so dramatically. Even the rich sacrifice financially because they no longer have the same freedom to direct investments in their field of expertise.
Another popular perception is that when a person leaves Congress, they find abundant opportunities to make piles of money. This is seldom true in their old profession. For example, after an absence of sixteen years, Lee’s professional connections and access to historic resources had diminished. It’s like starting your profession all over again, but now from middle-age.
The two chambers also make different demands on families. Senators have longer terms, which lessens the need for constant campaigning, and they deal with fewer constituent services. Still, even senators are on call at all hours of the day and night.
Although we like to think that anyone can run for office, wealth makes it far more comfortable. Fundraising comes easier, two homes are affordable, travel more private and luxurious, and private schools de rigueur.
Being a congressional family is not all bad, of course. In many cases, the entire family gets to meet the president and other high officials. Children are often familiar with people in the news. A congressperson’s family has access to areas, like the capitol dome, others never see. And, hopefully, there is the satisfaction of knowing you walk in the shadow of giants and have done your best to protect our country and improve the life of its citizens.
Being an elected public official is a difficult lifestyle for both the office holder and his or her family. A thank you might be in order the next time you meet your representative or senator.
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