Milbank: How Paul Ryan can fix Congress

Dana Milbank
On Twitter @Milbank
Dana Milbank

Paul Ryan has two goals. He can accomplish both with one move.

The new House speaker wants to make sure the big job doesn’t keep him from spending time with his wife and three children, who live in Janesville, Wis.

He also wants to restore “regular order” in the House, the time-consuming process in which all legislation goes through committees and all members have a chance to amend bills on the House floor.

The more he does of the latter, the less time he’ll have for the former. But he can achieve both simultaneously by doing what lawmakers did for generations until about 20 years ago: He can move his family to Washington.

Were he to do this and encourage his colleagues to do the same, Congress could scrap the three-day workweek that is the cause of much of Washington’s dysfunction. Lawmakers would all have more time with their families, and they would have more time to conduct the people’s business.

It was a gradual and pernicious trend, cemented around the time of Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution of 1994: Lawmakers, worried that they would be perceived as out-of-touch with their districts, decided to leave their spouses and children at home and commute to Washington. The arrangement was supposed to keep them from going native and succumbing to Washington’s backslapping ways.

Ryan is emblematic of this. He’s the first speaker who came to office after 1994, he has spent the past several years sleeping on a cot in his office in the Longworth building — and he plans to stick to the routine.

“I live in Janesville, Wisconsin, and I commute back and forth every week,” he told CNN’s Dana Bash this week. “I just work here. I don’t live here. So, I get up very early in the morning. I work out. I work until about 11:30 at night. I go to bed. And I do the same thing the next day. It actually makes me more efficient. I can actually get more work done by sleeping on a cot in my office.”

Ryan may not realize that his efficiency comes at a terrible cost. Lawmakers’ commuting obsession has essentially made theirs a Tuesday-to-Thursday job before they dash home or go off to raise money. 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.

The cause is fairly simple. Lawmakers have ceased to know each other as colleagues, friends and human beings. Because they are in such a hurry to get out of town, there are no more dinners or card games with counterparts from across the aisle. Their spouses don’t socialize, and they don’t know each other’s kids. These were the social lubricants that made Washington function for generations — the casual encounters where the political and the personal mix. (This column was hatched with Geoff Earle of the New York Post at one such function, a Capitol Hill book party.) The familiarity created goodwill. It’s harder to savage a colleague on the floor if your kids are friends.

Would voters punish politicians who moved their families to Washington? Maybe. But the notion that parents — fathers as well as mothers — want to spend more time with their families carries more weight now than it did a generation ago. Lawmakers could also make a solid case that they were fixing Washington. The place is busted not because members of Congress spend too much time here but because they don’t spend enough time here working on the problems.

Recent events showed the benefits of patience. Ryan, making good on his promise of “regular order,” let the House work its will on a major transportation bill. Some 125 amendments were ruled in order, and the House spent three days debating them before passing the bill, which included the controversial renewal of the Export-Import Bank, by an impressive 363 to 64. That’s how Washington should work. Ryan let the process play itself out; nobody felt jammed, and just about everybody liked the result.

Ryan could do a lot more of this if he extended the House to the five-day workweek most of America endures. And lawmakers, if their families were in Washington, would have no reason to object. They would find the arrangement better for kids, for Congress and for country.

Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post.