Rep. Paul Ryan's wife and three young children live in his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin. He commutes back there almost every weekend, and when he agreed to run for speaker of the House, he refused to change that routine.
"I cannot and will not give up my family time," he said.
His comments drew praise, even from Democrats, who were happily surprised that such a powerful man would place such a high priority on family responsibilities. Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (a mother of five) said she was "excited" to hear that Ryan is showing "a respect for his family-work balance."
We agree with Pelosi, but with reservations. For starters, most women making a similar statement would face a very different reaction.
"When women mention family, research shows, they tend to be immediately discounted as being uncommitted to their work, and penalized in pay and promotions," the New York Times reported.
Moreover, Ryan's stance leaves two key questions unanswered: Why does he oppose public policies that would help others achieve a healthy "family-work balance"? And why is his family back in Janesville, anyway?
In his most recent State of the Union address, President Obama called for a national paid leave policy that workers could use to meet family obligations, like a new child or a sick parent. As Sen. Bernie Sanders keeps emphasizing, the United States is the only developed country in the entire world without such a policy.
Like all Republicans, Ryan opposes the president's proposal. As an aide told the Huffington Post: "Mr. Ryan is supportive of paid family and medical leave -- he offers it to his staff -- but believes the decision is best left to the employer, not the government."
True, the free market often provides a better solution than government regulation for economic issues. But this is not one of them.
Declining unions and stagnating wages have deprived workers of bargaining power. They simply cannot obtain in the marketplace the benefits Ryan gives his own employees. This is fact, not opinion. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 13 percent of American workers enjoy some form of paid family leave.
A demonstration in Ryan's home district recently stressed this point. Angie Aker, a single mother from Kenosha, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she faced a dreadful choice: staying in the hospital with her sick child or returning to work so she could keep her job and health insurance.
"I'm here because I don't want other mothers and fathers to have to make that terrible decision when their children need them most," said Aker.
We have a special perspective on the second question: why lawmakers keep their families back home. Cokie's father, Hale Boggs, was a Democratic member of Congress from New Orleans and always wanted his family in Washington; in fact, we still live in the house he bought in 1952.
As a result, the Boggs family knew many Republicans. They lived in the same neighborhood, attended the same schools, worshipped in the same churches. And those relationships fostered mutual respect and softened partisan animosities.
The Boggs' next-door neighbors, Sylvia and Ab Hermann, were active Republicans. Hale and Ab would walk together on warm summer nights, and Cokie occasionally baby-sat for the Hermanns' daughter -- who later served 17 years in Congress under her married name, Jo Ann Emerson.
"There was much more closeness among all members of Congress," Emerson once told us in reflection. "We did things socially. You hardly see any of that anymore."
There are certainly good reasons for not moving a family to Washington. Many Congressional spouses have careers back home, and Ryan told Cokie recently that he simply couldn't afford to maintain two homes.
When he does return to Janesville, he sees his constituents and hears their problems. That's important. But something valuable is lost, as well.
Ellen McCarthy, the daughter of the late Sen. Gene McCarthy of Minnesota, was a longtime Congressional staffer who urged new members to move their families here. But every year, more of them spurned her advice, especially conservatives who demonized the capital as Gomorrah-on-the-Potomac.
This trend, says McCarthy, does "terrible things to the fabric of the Congress." Members and their families "don't spend any time with each other, they don't get to know each other as people, and I think that's a loss for the country."
Yes, it is. If Paul Ryan moved his family to Washington, he could solve a lot of problems. And while he's at it, he should vote to give other workers the same family-friendly benefits his own staffers enjoy.