Last week, as members of Congress did the things they do during recess — drink merlot at fundraisers, zip to fact-finding missions abroad, meet with local chambers of commerce — Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and two of his three children strung Halloween decorations across their lawn.
In his lengthy enumeration of conditions for taking on the role of House speaker, Ryan made clear to his Republican colleagues Tuesday night that one was sacrosanct: “I cannot and will not give up my family time.”
Ryan’s reluctance to replace John Boehner is driven largely by the war within the quarrelsome Republican majority. “Spending time with family,” has historically been code for “I don’t actually want this crummy job.”
Of course, most lawmakers in Washington spend long periods away from family. But by declaring the preservation of his family life a key concern in taking on a job that is a seven-day-a-week venture — the sort of job he sought once before, in 2012, when he was the Republican vice-presidential nominee — Ryan, 45, may be ushering in a new era for a position traditionally held by older congressmen who spent years rising through party ranks.
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“In U.S. society, we often talk about ‘working moms’ but not about ‘working dads,’ and the work-life policies that organizations do provide are often considered as being mainly for women,” said Erika Kirby a professor of communication studies and an authority on work-life issues at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. “So I think Rep. Ryan’s call for protecting his family time within a demanding job is extremely significant.”
As Ryan unapologetically sounded a parental alarm bell that has endangered female leaders’ prospects for decades, his comments may have had special appeal to Republican female members, who are often reluctant to cite their families outside policy discussions on the Hill.
Several female House members have small children and struggle with the long hours and arduous travel — particularly from western states — that the job entails.
“There’s a number of members, male and female, who have young families now,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, who has had three children since she was elected to Congress in 2004, and who serves on the House Republican leadership team. “Maybe it’s because Congress is getting younger and finding how to balance things. A conversation around that is healthy for the effectiveness of this institution.”
In a curious twist, some members of the House Freedom Caucus used Ryan’s demand as yet another bullet point in their case against him.
“He is a father,” said Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala. “He has young children. He does not have time to do the speaker’s job as it has been done in the past.”
Democrats and liberal bloggers immediately seized on Ryan’s remarks as incomplete at best, and hypocritical at worst. They noted that he does not support measures that would guarantee paid family leave, while he does support raising work requirements for those receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the government’s main welfare program.
“What I would hope is that Rep. Ryan would also be willing to politicize his personal commitments in pressing for more balanced lives for everyone through paid family leave and living wages,” Kirby said.
Ryan’s worries about work-life balance could represent a true generational shift in the making if he rises to the speakership. In modern times, the markers of the speakership have been gray hair and grandchildren, not orthodontist bills.
He would be the youngest speaker in more than a century — J. Warren Keifer of Ohio, who took the gavel in 1881, was also 45 — and the first in his 40s since Charles Frederick Crisp of Georgia became speaker in 1891.
In the last 40 years, speakers like Thomas O’Neill, Jim Wright and Tom Foley were hardly visions of modern-day working fathers, and among the last 10 speakers, the average age was in excess of 60. The most recent — Boehner and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. — came to the position after their children had grown up.
Ryan is from a different generation in age and culture. While his wife, Janna, a tax lawyer, quit her job years ago to raise their children, 10, 12 and 13 years old, Ryan plays a central role in their lives during the three days a week on average that he is home.
He is a regular at volleyball games and basketball contests. All three of his children have learned to shoot bucks at his side.
He is the designated pancake maker when home, and drives his children to school on the way to the airport on Mondays. Home time is often spent hanging out on the back deck, August recesses are spent in Colorado and spring break is road trip time.
Ryan is clearly loath to give up any of this in exchange for sitting around airports waiting on flights to far-flung congressional districts, or spending Sunday in the green room of “Meet the Press.”
Other members have offered to take up some of the fundraising and administrative duties. “There is a way for Paul to do this differently than I did,” Boehner said on Wednesday in a news conference.
While he was Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, Ryan had similar rules of engagement. Even in the heat of the campaign, Sunday was family day for him, and his family came out to join much of the fun on the road.
“This is not new for Paul,” said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore. “He’s lived this life for a long time. He’s just now making it clear to everyone else.”
RYAN WILL SEEK JOB
Rep. Paul Ryan said Thursday that he would seek to replace John Boehner as House speaker after two factions of the House Republicans — one small and moderate, one mainstream and large — endorsed him, bringing him close to securing the speaker’s gavel he had never wanted to seek.
“I never thought I’d be speaker,” Ryan said in a lengthy email to his Republican colleagues. “But I pledged to you that if I could be a unifying figure, then I would serve, I would go all in. After talking with so many of you, and hearing your words of encouragement, I believe we are ready to move forward as one, united team. And I am ready and eager to be our speaker.”
The approvals from the two House factions came less than 24 hours after the majority of members of the Freedom Caucus, which includes some of the most conservative House members, said they, too, would support Ryan’s bid.
New York Times News Service