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Beltway Pundits Can't Decide Whether They Want Senators to Live in Washington or Not

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call Group/Getty Images

After Tuesday's primaries, the last of the season, we are officially into the general election home stretch of 2014. And so far there are remarkably few unifying themes and issues spanning this disjointed election. Except for one, it appears: We are going to spend a lot of time in key races talking about where our senators live.

In Louisiana, Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu is under fire over revelations that she has on occasions listed her house in Washington as her official residence, and that she does not have a home of her own in Louisiana, but rather stays at her parents’ bungalow, which she lists as her Louisiana voter registration address. In Kansas, Republican incumbent Pat Roberts has for months now been contending with fallout over the disclosure that he lacks any family abode whatsoever in Kansas, but simply stays at the golf-course home belonging to a political donor, which he also lists as his voter registration address. Looming over these stories is the ghost of Richard Lugar, the Indiana Republican who lost in the 2012 primaries amid questions over his residency—his wife and he had sold their house in Indiana after they came to Washington in 1977, though they still owned a family farm there.

There is no question of the basic news value of the stories out of Louisiana and Kansas, which took real digging by political reporters at the Washington Post and New York Times, respectively. Both stories are, at the very least, amusing and do tell us something about the candidates. It’s curious that Landrieu is using her parents’ house like a prodigal 20-something, and even more curious that Roberts is content to sleep on a donor’s guest bed. (“I have full access to the recliner,” Roberts joked to the Times).

But we need to acknowledge that for official Washington to inflate such stories into quasi-scandals—the Post gave Landrieu its “Worst Week in Washington” award after her residency arose as an issue—is pretty audacious. Why? Because when official Washington isn’t scolding senators for maintaining their primary residency in Washington, it is often scolding them for…not spending enough time in Washington. Indeed, a stock element of the Beltway establishment’s lament over the decline of bipartisan comity in the capital is that senators and representatives are not spending enough time together in Washington.

Once upon a time, the lament goes, senators brought their families to Washington and integrated themselves into the fabric of the place (think of Al Gore Sr. raising Al Gore Jr. in a hotel on Embassy Row). Today, many are instead leaving their families back in their home states and district and constantly skipping out of town to visit them and do politicking back home for the permanent campaign that increasingly defines politics—for an extreme example, consider the pathetically light schedule that Congress has adopted for the next two months. As Evan Bayh, the former Democratic senator from Indiana and another son of a former senator, put it: “I think the greatest difference is the breakdown in personal relationships among the members which used to allow them to transcend ideological or partisan differences. There were bonds of trust and familiarity.” Charlie Gibson, the former ABC anchor, even did a paper on the problem for the Shorenstein Center at Harvard. “The lack of contact and the lack of familiarity between Members of Congress, particularly between Members of opposite parties, is the most under-reported, and under-studied aspect of polarization,” he wrote. “Those with extensive experience working on the Hill or who have served in Congress will say it is one of the most, if not the most, important causes of the problem.”

And the bipartisan Committee on Political Reform, an effort led by former Republican senator Olympia Snowe and former Democratic congressman and Cabinet member Dan Glickman, has zeroed in on the lack of time in Washington and is proposing that Congress expand its work week to five days from the mere three that often prevails now, which would discourage senators and representatives from treating Washington like a commuter pit stop. “If they spent a lot more of their time in Washington, even Monday through Friday, their families would likely live there and there would be less disrespect because they’d get to know each other and each other’s families,” says former North Carolina Gov. Jim Martin, a Republican who represented Charlotte in the House in the 1970s and ’80s. “If you and I have a difference of agreement on something but we know each other and respect each other, we’re going to find some kind of accommodation.”

I’ve never been entirely convinced that Washington would be working better these days if only members of Congress were spending more time drinking martinis together at Sally Quinn’s house; it seems as likely that today’s polarization is being driven by the parties’ asymmetrical polarization and regional sorting. Still, it seems a bit rich for Washington on the one hand to fret over elected officials not spending time in the capital and then turn around and make a lot of hay over Landrieu and Roberts spending too much time here. It’s a debate all the more hypocritical for Washington pundits to be having given that Landrieu and Roberts (like Lugar) are generally counted among the more comity-minded senators still remaining—the kind official Washington generally holds up for praise.

To some extent, of course, the contradiction between the “more time in Washington” and “less time in Washington” cries represents an age-old conflict between the desires of the Beltway establishment and voters back home who, polls show, genuinely would rather their elected officials spent more time back at home. (A desire that Paul Waldman noted is awfully counter-productive in a piece headlined: “The Stupidity of Hating Your Senator for Living Where You’ve Sent Her to Work.”)

So the tension will always be there in some form—challengers will forever be arguing that incumbents have “gone Washington.” But the strength of senators’ bonds back home do not necessarily correspond with their real estate holdings there (it’s hard to argue that Landrieu does not exert enough effort on behalf of Louisiana—she does, to a fault). It’s one thing for incumbents’ challengers to score points off residency disputes. But for the Beltway punditocracy to pile on even as it waxes nostalgic for Kay Graham’s bipartisan cocktail parties….well, a little restraint and self-awareness might be in order. Or, as they might say back in Louisiana: “Slow the TV.”