This is what it’s like to be a cross-country flight away from your constituents — and your family
House members stream down the Capitol steps early on a Wednesday evening, just after the last votes of the week. Some lawmakers linger, planning to fly home the next morning, but Rep. Juan Vargas rushes down the steps in jeans and a windbreaker — his travel wear.
At the nearest intersection, an aide hails a taxi and hands his boss an overnight bag. Vargas is hoping to catch an evening flight out of Baltimore, an hour’s drive away, and be home 2,700 miles across the country in San Diego before his daughter goes to bed.
“Even though she’s 14, she still loves to be put to bed with a prayer,” said Vargas, a Democrat who is a former Jesuit missionary. “I try very, very hard to get there.”
For decades, many members of Congress relocated their families to Washington. But in late 1994, when Republicans took control of the House for the first time in 40 years, incoming Speaker Newt Gingrich encouraged his party’s members to leave their families in their districts, to emphasize their independence from Washington and their roots among constituents.
House leaders subsequently have built more home time into the congressional calendar, scheduling work for three weeks a month and limiting important votes to three days a week, typically Tuesday through Thursday. Even representatives of distant districts can travel home each weekend. Consequently, Congress has spent less time in Washington over the past two decades.
For most members, weekly commuting is now a routine of congressional life. It’s an aspect of the job that many Americans have come to expect from their representatives, but one that many lawmakers aren’t fully prepared for.
For Californians, the cross-continent commute makes for an especially arduous job of juggling time for constituents and families, as a recent spring weekend among the state’s representatives illustrated.
Most lawmakers blend into the crush of tourists and travelers at the airport, shuffling through the boarding line with everyone else.
“Everybody thinks that we have special privileges for security and tickets, and we don’t actually. We just go through TSA pre[-check] like everybody else,” Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) said.
With taxpayers covering the travel costs, members of Congress must buy economy-class tickets. But, Chu added, “because we’re frequent fliers we get upgrades. I have a million miles.”
It’s not always clear what day the House will leave when the “week” in Washington begins. Congressional aides normally reserve several flights for their bosses and cancel unneeded flights later, when a departure time can be safely predicted.
A direct flight between California and Washington is at least five hours. Aides try to avoid time-sucking layovers for their members of Congress, but that often isn’t possible for those not flying into major cities.
Rep. David Valadao (R-Hanford) said he’s in the air at least 12 hours a week to get between Fresno and Washington, and layovers in Denver or Dallas can mean additional travel hours.
“If I miss the flight in Denver, I’ll go through L.A. and drive through the night, walk through the door at 2, 3 in the morning,” Valadao said. “But at least I’m there when the kids wake up.”
On planes, members read emails and policy papers, prepare for speeches or town hall meetings, or catch up on favorite shows.
“It’s also my time, which I admit is kind of a sad way to look at it,” said Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-Carmel), who says he knew what to expect given his travels with his long-serving father, former Rep. Leon Panetta.
“I can catch up on the articles, do some work, but if I want to have a Scotch, I’ll have a Scotch. And if I want to watch a movie, I’ll watch a movie — when I have the free time.”
Family time, sort of
At 7:48 a.m. Saturday, Rep. Jimmy Gomez hoists his 11-year-old terrier mix, Austin, over his shoulder and marches up a steep incline at Los Angeles’ Debs Park. Gomez, one of the city’s Democratic representatives, tries to identify birds along the trail between chatting with his wife, Mary Hodge, about what chores await at home and where they should go for a late-night snack.
“I love kind of running into people on the streets and talking to them about what they care about. Sometimes they just want to say hello,” Gomez said. “They appreciate it. They feel like you still care about the neighborhood and you haven’t ‘gone Washington.’”
After checking in with a local guide about a bird he couldn’t identify (it was a California scrub jay), Gomez hops into a car waiting at the end of the trail to take him to an Earth Day event, where he’ll help clean up the Los Angles River. Hodge and Austin head home in the family car.
Twelve hours later, Gomez and Hodge reconnect at the Far East Plaza in Chinatown. They chat with the president of the Chinatown Business Improvement District, George Yu, at a picnic table and munch on Taiwanese dumplings and hot popcorn chicken. Next stop is Lasa, one of the hottest new restaurants in the country; the owner personally delivers a few Filipino specialties from the kitchen.
Vargas, the representative from San Diego, said he tries to align his schedule with his teenage daughters’ when he is home, and not to be conflicted about the time away.
“You have to remember that what you’re doing here is very important,” Vargas said during an interview in Washington. “We’re a very religious family and so always I tell them this is part of the sacrifices you make for the greater good. God gave us this opportunity — take the opportunity.”
Some lawmakers said they try to tuck in family time around work events. Valadao dashes from constituent meetings to watch his three young kids compete in soccer games and 4-H shows on Saturdays.
“I can do a little bit of everything,” he said.
Many in the California delegation said Sundays are family time. Rep. Pete Aguilar, a Democrat from Redlands, said he and his wife, Alisha, let their two young children plan the day.
“The kids get to decide whether we’re having a lazy day at home or whether we’re going to go for a hike or going to go for a run,” Aguilar said. “My staff knows they have to get the approval from Alisha if they want to encroach on a Sunday.”
Rep. Mimi Walters (R-Irvine) tries to leave Sunday mornings for Mass and brunch with her mom and dad. “As I’ve gotten older and I watch my parents get older, I have much more appreciation for life and for family,” she said.
At 8:37 a.m. on a Sunday, morning haze obscures the Los Angeles skyline, but sunlight streams through a wall of windows at Rep. Karen Bass’ home. She scrambles eggs, pours orange juice and toasts sourdough bread.
The plants are watered, her bag is packed for her 4 p.m. flight back to Washington. First, however, she and another Democrat, Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, will answer questions for 90 minutes at a political town hall at the Iman Cultural Center in Los Angeles. Later, she’ll hold a fundraiser.
“What people don’t realize is we work seven days a week,” Bass said. “When I’m here, there’s always events. There’s meetings, there’s always something. Doing laundry and going to the store is like a real treat.”
Many members routinely hold weekend town hall meetings or host other events open to the public: Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) has Sunday “office hours” at a local Starbucks. Others hold smaller, less public events to learn about what’s going on in the district: Rep. Steve Knight (R-Palmdale) had a school safety discussion with Antelope Valley school administrators on a recent Friday.
Over huevos con mole at Myke’s Cafe in Pacoima, Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Los Angeles) said he tries to speak to San Fernando Valley schoolchildren whenever he’s home. He was the first Latino elected to represent the Valley in the state Assembly before running for Congress.
“I want them to realize, I’m just like you. I grew up here,” Cardenas said.
As aides to Rep. Nanette Barragán began tossing a baseball in a Compton park on a Sunday afternoon, kids started drifting over from the jungle gym to join in. A smattering of parents walked over to talk with the congresswoman.
The San Pedro Democrat said she tries to focus on a different part of her South L.A. district each weekend. “It’s really important, especially when you’re in your first term, to be back as much as possible,” Barragán said. “People throughout the district want to see you, and what’s really hard is when there are so many requests and you can’t be everywhere.”
She usually takes a red-eye flight back to Washington on Sunday night, to have time there Monday to make fundraising calls while her colleagues are returning.
“If you’re on a flight on Monday morning, you lose a whole day. I sleep for a few hours, I can start call time around noon, and I at least get maybe four hours of call time in before I have to start my legislative day,” Barragan said.
“And that’s the reality of being a member of Congress, especially when you are new and unknown still.”
Vargas, the third-term congressman from San Diego, is among those who do tend to wait until Monday morning, to maximize time at home. On this recent Monday, despite an 8 a.m. flight to Washington, Vargas makes a quick Starbucks run so he can awaken his daughter with her favorite drink before he leaves again.
“And then I get back in my car and drive to the airport and say goodbye for the week,” Vargas said. “Honestly, I don’t mind it. I’m here fighting for the things I believe in.”
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