'Congress wasn't built for members like me'
“Congress wasn’t built for members like me,” Porter, a consumer advocate and professor from Orange County, California said in an interview. “For those of us who have young children, which is a minority, there’s definitely the built-in assumption of a two-parent model… There is no template for how to do this in my situation as a single mom.”
A record 102 women were elected in the midterms, a total that includes several moms with young children. The influx is forcing lawmakers to reassess policies to make Capitol Hill more female- and parent-friendly. Renovations are already underway to install nursing stations around the Capitol. And there’s talk among Democratic women about how to best arrange the congressional schedule so that parents can video chat with their kids over dinner, help them with their school work and make it home three days a week.
The increased number of women with children, while still a small minority of lawmakers, will likely reinvigorate a debate over child care costs as well. Lawmakers, who earn $174,000 a year, are barred from using any official funds for child care needs, but there's a quiet debate underway among some new members about whether that rule should be tweaked.
Moms like Porter — whose kids are 12, 10 and 7 and will continue living back home in California — face exorbitant child care bills that could easily swamp their salaries. Porter, a 44-year-old divorcee from an abusive marriage, is currently searching for a provider to watch her children overnight as well as before and after school while she’s in Washington four to five days a week.
“I’ve thought about it a lot. … How are we going to make it work?” she said. “It’s an additional, significant … cost for me. But I think part of it is: If we don’t have voices like mine, trying to figure out how to do it — to juggle and serve — then we won’t have anyone else speaking up to try to improve the system.”
That debate comes amid an ongoing effort by the Architect of the Capitol to try to make the campus grounds — built to accommodate older, white men — ready for more women. When lawmakers returned from August recess, female lawmakers packed into the restroom off the House floor to get a glimpse of the new baby changing tables that were placed in the members-only bathrooms. Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), who runs the Democratic Women’s Working Group, snapped pictures on her phone to memorialize the occasion.
“I think there are a lot of people who are talking about … how we can make it easier for new moms and single moms,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). “These women are looking at what they need as new moms or moms of middle school kids, what kinds of rules would accommodate that…. [We] recognize that women are a new and growing force in this Congress.”
The effort to make Capitol Hill more hospitable to women has been gradual. In 2007, when Nancy Pelosi became speaker, she pushed to install the first lactation room in the House and a smoking ban in the Speaker’s Lobby. In 2011, at the height of a marathon standoff over the debt ceiling, female lawmakers pushed Republican leadership to add a women’s restroom off the House floor.
For years, male members had their own restroom just feet from where they voted. But the women had to walk a ways from the chamber and dodge tourists to get to their restroom in Statuary Hall.
The debate about Congress' accommodations for women surfaced again earlier this year after female lawmakers and reporters complained about the dress code. For decades, women were forced to cover their shoulders and were forbidden from wearing open-toed shoes when entering the House floor or the speaker’s lobby.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) changed the rules amid an uproar last summer after a reporter tweeted about getting kicked out for going sleeveless. Women are now allowed to show their shoulders.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) also made history earlier this year when she became the first female senator to give birth while in office. Her colleagues voted to change Senate rules so she could bring her infant on the floor during votes.
House rules have allowed lawmakers to bring children on the floor for years. But other House rules are on the chopping block because of the diversity of the incoming class. Pelosi is working with the House Rules Committee to tweak a ban on hats that's existed since the 1830s, a response to the recent election of two Muslim women to Congress — including one, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who wears a hijab.
Democratic women are also keen on getting anti-sexual harassment legislation passed to protect women from the boys' club culture that's long dominated on Capitol Hill.
The House schedule is also coming under scrutiny. Female members and members-elect say they’re planning to press Democratic leaders not to schedule votes after 6:30 p.m. The best thing Republicans did while in power, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said in an interview, was change the schedule so that votes rarely occurred late in the evenings.
Wasserman Schultz had twin five-year-olds and a one-year-old when she came to Washington in 2005. The absence of late-night votes allowed her to maintain daily check-ins with her children, who stayed home in Florida with her husband.
“We don’t want to have divorces or kids who are dropping off the edge in school,” Wasserman Schultz said in an interview. “Your family is always your No. 1 priority. And you can structure your schedule, I tell members, around your life to make it work. It just requires a lot of organization and a lot of family cooperation.”
Wasserman Schultz has become a mentor for several new members with small children. She reached out to share advice with Porter as well as with Reps.-elect Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.), who both have three young children as well. Wasserman Schultz plans to create an informal “Moms in the House” caucus as a support network.
They’ll have plenty of participants in the incoming freshman class: In addition to Porter, Spanberger and Mucarsel-Powell, Mikie Sherrill, a former Navy pilot, is the mother of four young children. Angie Craig of Minnesota has four boys, three in college and one in high school. Elaine Luria of Virginia has a 9-year-old daughter.
And they're far from alone.
“I’m sure this is something they haven’t had to face: women with small children,” said Rep.-Elect Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.), who has two teenagers but says she’s “fortunate” enough to live only an hour outside Washington. “I think that women are going to bring the perspective of moms that maybe has not been brought to the front of the legislative agenda in the past.”
Some of the incoming lawmakers and incumbent women are discussing whether to press leadership to keep lawmakers in Washington no more than four days a week, to allow them more time with their children back in the districts. Republicans usually kept the schedule to four days, but with the change in power in Washington, some Democrats may be eager to keep members in town for longer, as Republicans did when they took control of the White House in 2017.
The most important thing is certainty in the schedule, these women say. Last-minute scheduling changes can cause serious child care challenges, as Porter has learned firsthand.
The day Porter pulled ahead of GOP Rep. Mimi Walters — the race was too close to call for more than a week after Election Day — lawmakers encouraged her to fly to Washington immediately so she didn’t fall behind at orientation, which had already started. Porter found a friend to look after her kids for a few days, but Porter still had to leave orientation early to get back to them.
She doesn't yet know how much child care will cost her but says standard 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. care often tops $1,400 a month for one child in her area. Hers, she knows, will likely cost much more.
“Often people ask me how I’m going to do it, and I think that’s the right question: What’s the best way to manage this?” Porter said. “I’m going to have to figure this out as I go.”