WASHINGTON — Freshman U.S. Rep. Jodey Arrington and his wife recently made an unusual choice: The couple and their three young children are moving to Washington.
“This was a family decision, and it’s going to be a family journey and adventure,” the Lubbock Republican told The Texas Tribune last month.
Arrington is an outlier in this life choice, both in the Texas delegation and in the rest of Congress. Most members opt for a different lifestyle, racing to Washington at the beginning of every week and returning home three days later.
That’s the life a handful of Texas members currently endure as they raise children back in Texas. They are all men, as there are currently no mothers with children that are younger than 18 in the delegation. Texas has not elected a freshman woman to a full term in Congress since 1996.
Of the several members interviewed by the Tribune, nearly all used the word “sacrifice” to describe the constant Texas-to-Washington commute.
Arrington is well aware that his family’s choice is different from most of his colleagues. And so while nearly everyone in Congress runs as far as they can from the U.S. Capitol as often as possible, his aim is to live as close to the building as he can — “so that I can go home and occasionally have dinner and tuck them into bed and come back to work if I need to,” he said.
Arrington said he will commute back to Lubbock every weekend and imagines his young children will spend their summers back home to instill “West Texas values.” They could possibly return to the state for college, too, he said.
It all sounds ideal. So why don’t more members opt for the same lifestyle?
The reasons are financial and political.
U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, a Fort Worth Democrat, described conversations with former U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright about a previous era in politics when members of Congress bonded over attending balls and softball games together.
That lack of off-hours friendships formed over weekends is frequently blamed for the polarized nature of Capitol Hill.
“I do think you lose something by not being up here all the time,” Veasey said.
But, Veasey said, that is not financially realistic to him or many other members. Veasey said that finding adequate housing for a family near the Capitol was cost prohibitive and he was unwilling to commute in from the Virginia or Maryland suburbs. Many members abide in apartments and in shared townhouses while in town, some with roommates.
“One bathroom, three men,” said U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, describing his living situation in D.C. with two other House members. While he misses his wife and three kids, he said he prefers the current situation to moving them to Washington.
“So much of my identity, who I am, who I want my kids to be, is El Paso. It’s very, very important to us that our home is in El Paso, that we raise our children there and that I maintain a very strong connection to the community,” O’Rourke said.
If a member of Congress is viewed as too comfortable in Washington, D.C., it can foster political trouble over the long term. Few things make for better opposition research than enrolling children in Washington private schools or owning property in the district.
Frequent trips home also allow a member to be more aware of potential primary or general election threats.
Given the pros and cons, many members opt to put up with a weekly plane commute home.
“I have not spent a single weekend in Washington, D.C., and so I’m one of those folks that’s on the last plane in and the first plane out,” said U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe, a Heath Republican. “And Michele, my wife, really has to operate often as a single parent during the week.”
“I don’t know that I would have run for Congress if my daughters were 10 and 7 as opposed to what they were at the time, 15 and 12,” he said, adding that their maturity helped them understand the sacrifice of serving in office.
“I will say, teenaged girls care less about whether or not their father is around than girls that are, for instance, 10 or 7.”
Even with teenaged girls, Ratcliffe clears his schedule for family time on Sundays. Veasey concurred that the key is to hire protective staff.
There is little doubt though, that the commuting grind can wear on some Congressional families.
Veasey recounted conversations with regretful, more senior members of Congress who could not recall a single Halloween spent with their children.
“You don’t want that — there’s nothing more important than your family,” he said. “It’s real easy for your family to slip away from you.”
Arrington similarly took cues from the Congressional bulls, saying that U.S. Reps. Lamar Smith of San Antonio and Mac Thornberry of Clarendon, both Republicans, encouraged him to make the move to Washington.
“They assured me that while it was a sacrifice, I don’t have to sacrifice my family,” he said.
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