Both Newsweek and the Times ran stories last week about the fact that most all members of Congress now maintain their family and primary residence back in their district, rather than moving their family to the capital, like the good old days. The Newsweek story seems to suggest that this has resulted in more polarization and less cooperation:
This phenomenon has ramifications far beyond absent parents and poorly attended First Lady Lunches. It’s another component that portends a new level of Capitol Hill gridlock. Real legislating—the compromises and dealmaking that distinguish politics from posturing—happens only among people who know and respect each other. Family life has always been crucial to that chemistry. During Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, first lady historian Carl Anthony points out, gritty negotiations with congressional Republicans, led by Gerald Ford, were often smoothed over by Lady Bird Johnson and Betty Ford, cultivated during long years as congressional wives.
There’s also a difference in tone. If you live across the street from your political opponent, if you know his kids, if you’ve been to dinner at his house, “it’s impossible to go up on the floor of the Senate or in the media and blast him the next day,” says Trent Lott, former Senate leader from Mississippi. If, on the other hand, you live on the road and your spouse is back home, raising the kids and running the family business by herself, bipartisan socializing might not be your first priority.
The Times story focuses on the oddity of member of Congress living out of their offices.
Thing is, I think the Newsweek story is basically wrong. Of all the reasons that Congress has become more polarized, I think the lack of wives hanging out has to be pretty near the bottom of the list. This is a great example of correlation, not causation. Over the same period that members have chosen not to live in Washington, there’s been all sorts of factors leading to more polarized parties (short version: it all starts with racial integration and the collapse of the solidly Democratic South).
Nonetheless, a good excuse to throw in my story on the matter. Former Senate minority leader Tom Daschle, (D- SD) settled his family just a couple blocks away in my just-outside-the-beltway hometown of Springfield, VA. His two daughters took piano with my mom and when I was in 5th grade, I was on the same basketball team as his son, Nathan (now the executive director of the Democratic Governor’s Association– I’m sure family connections did not help at all in getting that job). On occasion, then Representative Daschle would drive us both to basketball practice. From what I can tell, Nathan is much better in his current job than he was at youth basketball (same can be said for me too, actually). Alas, now the young denizens of Springfield don’t get to be driven to basketball practice by members of Congress. That’s why Springfield has become so polarized.