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Seeking A More Family-Friendly House of Representatives
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Seeking A More Family-Friendly House of Representatives

Retiring lawmakers want to spend more time with their kids. Why do they have to choose?

Happy early Thanksgiving! Among other blessings, we’re grateful that lawmakers finally skipped town. They’ll return next week. In the meantime, let’s examine the wave of recent retirement announcements in the House.

The Congressional Record

  • House Speaker Mike Johnson met with former President Donald Trump in Florida on Monday night during a fundraising trip to the state. Johnson—who led an amicus brief supporting a Texas lawsuit that attempted to throw out results from several states Trump lost in the 2020 election—endorsed Trump’s 2024 presidential bid last week.
  • Rep. Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat who was first elected in 1992, announced her decision to retire Tuesday afternoon. Eshoo’s Silicon Valley district is safely Democratic, and her departure will spark a hotly contested campaign among Democratic candidates to claim the seat.
  • Two House Republicans are requesting records from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to investigate what a Wall Street Journal investigation last week revealed to be the agency’s toxic and sexist workplace culture. “The allegations of a culture of tolerating harassment at the FDIC weakens the credibility of your agency,” Reps. Lisa McClain and Andy Biggs wrote in a letter to FDIC Chairman Martin Gruenberg.
  • Republicans on the select committee on competition with the Chinese Communist Party are urging congressional leaders to approve $12 billion in funding to boost the United States’ presence in the Indo-Pacific region and ramp up arms production. They argue the $2 billion President Joe Biden recently requested for similar purposes isn’t nearly enough to deter a Chinese attack on self-governed, democratic Taiwan.
  • House Speaker Mike Johnson said Friday he will release all non-sensitive security footage from the Capitol on January 6, 2021. Videos from the first tranche of footage sparked far-right conspiracy theories on X, formerly known as Twitter, about FBI operatives participating in the attack. Sen. Mike Lee, a Utah Republican, said he planned to ask the FBI about a man in a video whom Trump’s supporters deemed suspicious, even though that man—a Trump supporter himself—is currently serving four years in prison for his actions that day.
  • Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan told Politico this week that House Republicans aim to make a decision in early 2024 about whether to impeach President Joe Biden. GOP lawmakers hope to conduct 15 witness interviews, including a deposition of Hunter Biden, for the investigation by the end of 2023.

The House’s Retention Problem

Rep. Kevin McCarthy greets Rep. Lance Gooden and his children in the House Chamber during the fourth day of elections for Speaker of the House at the U.S. Capitol Building on January 7, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Rep. Kevin McCarthy greets Rep. Lance Gooden and his children in the House Chamber during the fourth day of elections for Speaker of the House at the U.S. Capitol Building on January 7, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Congress isn’t a great place to be a parent.

Members contend with unpredictable voting schedules, frequent travel, nonstop campaign events, angry constituents, death threats, stressful fundraising demands, and stagnant wages. Without proxy voting or other remote participation procedures, their maternity leave options are limited. That may be why only 12 women have given birth while serving in Congress. And a nonprofit advocacy group encouraging more moms to run for office estimated earlier this year that just 7 percent of current lawmakers are mothers to minor children.

Lawmakers with a spouse back home might not have to worry as much about arranging childcare, but they still miss family dinners and day-to-day parenting tasks like picking children up from school or sports practices. So it’s no surprise that a desire to spend more time with family is among the most commonly cited reasons when members of both parties choose not to seek reelection. In some cases, that explanation may only scratch the surface of other contributing factors, like today’s incredibly dysfunctional GOP conference, redrawn district maps, and tough reelection prospects. Members also leave to campaign for higher office or as they grow too old to keep up with a fast-paced job. 

But a spate of retirement decisions over the past month, on track to meet or potentially exceed the number of exoduses in the past few Congresses, has highlighted the House’s talent retention problem. Making the job more family friendly could help maintain institutional knowledge. There aren’t many easy fixes, though, and the changes that could make a difference are usually seen as political third rails.

Rep. Derek Kilmer—a Washington Democrat who chaired a committee on modernizing the House for four years—said earlier this month he will retire because the job “has come with profound costs to my family.” Kilmer, 49, described emailing his kids each time he boarded a plane to the nation’s capital over the past decade to explain the work he would be doing each week. “Every theatrical performance and musical recital I missed. Every family dinner that I wasn’t there for,” he wrote. “I hope they know that I was really trying my best to make the world better for them.”

And Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee, 65, said being treated for cancer earlier this year prompted him and his family to reconsider how he wants to spend his time. Rep. Brad Wenstrup, a 65-year-old Ohio Republican who has served in Congress since 2013, will also not seek reelection because he wants to be present for his two children.

“One time as I was leaving, I said to my son, ‘Well, I’m heading out now for D.C.—I’ll call you tonight. We’ll do FaceTime,’” Wenstrup recalled in an interview with The Dispatch on Monday. “He looks me right in the eye, and he goes, ‘Okay. But I’ll still miss you.’”

As each election approached, Wenstrup and his wife talked through the pros and cons of running again. Housing was one major concern. When they were a newly married couple and Wenstrup was just starting in Congress, he said, they had a studio apartment in Washington, D.C., which they traded for a larger apartment after their son was born. “One weekend, we actually caught 48 roaches,” he remembered of that place.

In addition to their existing residence in Ohio, they eventually bought a townhouse in D.C., where his wife and both kids stayed while Wenstrup worked. Renting out the basement made maintaining two households more affordable on a representative’s $174,000 annual salary. After six years, though, they sold it because they wanted their kids to live in Ohio on a permanent basis. Wenstrup, meanwhile, moved into a townhouse shared by four members of Congress during Washington work weeks.

Wenstrup’s decision to leave Congress comes as he was moving up in the House Republican conference: He currently chairs a subcommittee investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic and sits on the powerful Ways and Means and Intelligence committees. But when the time came to decide about the 2024 race, he felt he was “missing too much” of his children’s lives.

The expectation in earlier Congresses that most members’ families would live in the nation’s capital, before travel across the country was so efficient, may have made it more feasible to balance work and family life, Wenstrup said.

Yuval Levin, director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said it seems more common now than a generation ago for lawmakers to keep their families back home—as the Wenstrups eventually decided—while they work in Washington. “It wouldn’t be easy to change that,” he told The Dispatch on Monday. “Among other things, D.C. is very expensive and member salaries have not kept up with living costs.” Members’ salaries haven’t changed since 2009, although, as we wrote to you earlier this year, representatives are now able to submit some living expenses for reimbursement.

Wenstrup told The Dispatch a more consistent voting schedule would make the job less draining for parents. Those extra nights on the House floor because some faction or another is holding up a bill—or because world events demand an urgent vote on legislation—can’t really be avoided, but they take a toll.

Molly Reynolds, a Congress expert at the Brookings Institution, noted members can also face a great deal of political blowback for spending too much time in Washington. “We’re still very much in a ‘Washington is to be run away from/I don’t want to be accused of losing touch with my district’ era,” she told The Dispatch. Former Rep. Joe Crowley, for example—the New York Democrat who was unseated in 2018 by progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—received political attacks because of his family’s home in northern Virginia, where his kids attended school.

Reynolds added that representatives today may also come from dual-career families more often than they did in the past, and lawmakers’ partners might not want to give up their jobs at home to move to the nation’s capital.

Matt Glassman of Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, another Congress expert asked by The Dispatch to think through the problem, said Monday that expanding funding for the House’s daycare center could at least give more members the option to bring infants and preschool-aged children with them. 

Former Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Washington Republican who worked to recruit young women for the House, said in 2019 that concerns about child care were among the most common deterrents for women choosing not to run for office. A $12 million House daycare facility expansion championed at the time by former Speaker Kevin McCarthy was intended in part to alleviate that problem, but members of Congress still face waitlists to enroll their children, and they share the center with congressional staff. (It also experienced an unfortunate rat infestation last year.)

Josh Huder, another American government expert at Georgetown, said Congress can tackle the daycare infrastructure, member pay, and calendar problems, but it may not be enough to change the fact that being a representative is a taxing job. These are achievable fixes, but they won’t address the political cultural problem,” he told The Dispatch. “One outside-the-box solution might be to increase the size of the House. With fewer constituents it might lighten the political, fundraising, representative demands on a member. But that’s only a temporary solution, with a lot of unintended consequences.”

And none of those changes would make working with a steadily increasing band of far-right rabble-rousers more tolerable. Retention will continue to be a challenge as long as any one member can grind the House’s work to a halt for weeks and as long as lawmakers can barely avoid coming to blows on a typical day.

Wenstrup said he made his decision to retire before the House descended into chaos this fall when Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida forced a vote to oust former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy from power and the GOP conference struggled to find someone—anyone—who could win enough votes to replace him as speaker. 

But the dysfunction “made it easier” to leave, Wenstrup joked.

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.