07.30.11

The Debt Crisis Comes Home

The gridlock over the debt ceiling is wreaking havoc—on legislators' families. Political spouses tell David A. Graham about strained marriages, lost quality time, and dwindling family dinners.

Lisa Price has a lot on her mind this weekend. As she tries to finish renovating her home before her children and their families arrive from out of town, her mind is fixated on the debt-ceiling negotiations—she thinks the Democrats have compromised too much, and she’s worried about the economic impact if a deal isn’t made.

But Price’s concern is a bit more personal than the average American’s. Her husband, David Price, is a North Carolina Democrat serving his 12th term in the House, and with Congress still frantically—and, so far, fruitlessly—seeking a deal to raise the ceiling, he can’t come home to Chapel Hill. The Prices’ son, his wife, and their two grandchildren, who live in London, are due in early next week, and Washington’s failure to reach a deal is suddenly throwing a wrench in long-set plans.

“We don’t see them often, and we’ve been really looking forward to this,” Lisa Price says. “We’re all supposed to go to the beach on Saturday the sixth of August. We’ve had this planned for months. The possibility that David would miss the summer trip is worrisome.”

The Prices aren’t alone. Political spouses have always filled a quiet but essential position, balancing twin roles of bolstering their husbands’ or wives’ images while avoiding becoming a distraction—all the while taking over parenting and housekeeping duties that their elected partner simply doesn’t have time for. The exigencies of the political calendar have a tendency to wreck even the best-laid plans. Veteran spouses tell of going to ribbon-cuttings and ceremonies, bestowing awards, and even delivering stump speeches in the stead of spouses stuck in D.C., and of acquiring a sort of extended family in the staffers who help politicians and their families coordinate and communicate.

But the experienced ones say now is worse than ever. Some of it is the much-discussed atmosphere of hyperpartisanship that prevails in Washington—and which has blocked a deal so far. The path for political families has changed over the last decades, with more and more choosing to remain in home districts, leaving their husbands and wives to commute frequently. That means that when a vote strands members, they’re more likely to be separated from their spouses and more likely to have to cancel plans.

House Dean John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, has been in Congress as long as he’s been married to Debbie Dingell, and she says she can now predict when her husband won’t make it out of Washington. Years of experience have taught her to deal with the many practical considerations—like airline change fees—that don’t immediately come to mind. “Seasoned spouses know how to plan, but for younger spouses they don’t know what to do, they don’t know what to expect,” she said Friday night, fresh from filling in for Representative Dingell at a restaurant opening. “I’ve been married to John for 30 years, but for a young spouse, it’s disappointing.”

How many times has a vote interfered with the couple’s plans? “In my 30 years of marriage? More than you care to count,” says Dingell, a successful General Motors executive and Democratic mover and shaker in her own right. “John’s never been at an event that I’ve been honored at. Inevitably, if something important happens, something’s going to come up. It’s the way of life, but it doesn’t mean you’re not disappointed.”

Still, this time feels different. Although gatherings of spouses and families have become rarer over the years (Dingell, who’s had a front-row seat for the whole process, says that gatherings of spouses even within party caucuses have become rare, to say nothing of bipartisan bashes), they’re not unheard of. Last week, Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) arranged an impromptu potluck for families in town—he brought burgers, the Dingells brought salad, and the family of Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) brought desserts.

But the political backdrop cast something of a pall over the otherwise happy gathering. “If you’ve been at it this long, you know it’s going to be worked out,” Dingell says, no matter what the issue is. “This time, though, no one seems to know. There’s almost a little desperation.” Lisa Price, too, says, “We’ve been delayed in going on trips when things have taken longer, but I don’t remember anything quite like this.”

Adding young children to the mix makes things even more complicated. Sharon Lee’s husband, Mike, is a freshman Republican senator from Utah. The family knew what it was getting into, but that doesn’t make it any easier when he has to miss out on activities. With the Senate in session during the week, the Lee family makes the most of weekends.

"Sunday dinner is something that we really enjoy as a family,” Sharon says. “The kids and I went to the store this week wondering what we’d make, and sometimes it’s disappointing when he’s not here for them.”

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that modern communication—from phones to Facebook to television—can help make the distance seem shorter and even provide a bit of a civic education. “[The kids] always know he’s working harder when they see him on the news,” Lee says. “I mentioned on a Facebook post that I noticed he had a great new haircut, and we like to comment on what tie he’s wearing. We have a daughter who’s 10, and when she saw the haircut she said it was cut, capped nicely, and well-balanced”—a clever pun on the Cut, Cap, and Balance Act proposed by a group of congressional conservatives, which Senator Lee sponsored.

If you’ve been at it this long, you know it’s going to be worked out. This time, though, no one seems to know.

For some, the Lees’ strong mix of optimism and stoicism is the best way to deal with the difficulties of life in a political family. Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, married then-Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) in 2004, and wrote about her experience as campaign wife on his successful 2006 Senate campaign in her book …And His Lovely Wife: A Memoir from the Woman Beside the Man. She recalls complaining about attacks on Brown and herself, only to be told by her editor, “No whining on the yacht!”—meaning that if your husband is a senator, no one wants to hear about how hard you have it.

“I think that’s perfect,” Schultz says. “A lot of great things come with being family of a member of Congress, and there’s not an American I know that wants to hear any whining from us.”

It’s helpful to not have small children to worry about, Schultz says. But she says that, regardless, it’s important to keep everything in perspective. “Of course we’re canceling plans, but it comes with Sherrod’s job, and the last thing he needs is a wife complaining about it. I think the most important thing right now is raising the debt ceiling, not that we had to change our plans.”

Sharon Lee, Schultz’s fellow Senate wife, feels the same way: “We understand that there are many, many people serving our country much farther away and whose sacrifices are much greater.”

And of course, there’s one surefire way for a member of Congress to guarantee that his or her spouse will be around even during the most drawn-out votes and debates. California Republican Rep. Mary Bono Mack doesn’t have to look too hard to find her husband: Connie Mack (R-Fla.) is also her colleague in the House.

With McKay Coppins.