Poor Chris Murphy. The senator got hammered last week when word got out that his ballot did not count in Connecticut’s recent municipal elections because his status as a voter, first reported right here in CTNewsJunkie, was deemed “inactive” by officials in Old Lyme.
The current Connecticut household for the Murphy family, such as it is, actually consists of his parents’ seasonal home in Old Lyme. That’s because Murphy’s wife, Cathy Holahan, and their two children actually reside in Washington, where the senator works most of the time. Based on his job, he splits his time between Connecticut and Washington but maintains a voting address here.
This came about because they sold their house in Cheshire quicker than they expected to, and are reportedly looking for a home in the Hartford area. (Murphy grew up in Wethersfield.) Until they locate a new Connecticut home, the Murphys had to find an address to use in order to maintain registration as voters in the state.
Trouble is, when a registrar of voters in Old Lyme mailed Murphy a notice requiring him to confirm his registration, the note went unanswered. Murphy’s name was consequently moved to inactive status, so the absentee ballot he dutifully filled out was worthless.
Cries of the “homeless senator” and “Mail Drop Murphy” could be heard from Greenwich to Putnam. Some commenter on Facebook wondered if Murphy or his parents had ever heard of the concept of leaving a forwarding address with the local post office.
I know. It is very amusing and sometimes satisfying to revel in the agony of a politician. But truth be told, I think Murphy is on to something and I hope he doesn’t move his family back to Connecticut until he doesn’t have business in DC anymore. There’s nothing illegal about it, since the relevant part of the Constitution says, without defining the word, that Murphy must “be an Inhabitant of that State for which he shall be chosen.”
There are many reasons for members of Congress to avoid Washington and spend more time in their districts or home states. They’re under pressure from constituents to appear at events back home, lest they fall out of touch. They need to go home to raise money. And it has become fashionable for members of Congress to express disdain for Washington insiders and spend as little time there as possible.
Not often mentioned are the consequences of such an arrangement. Lawmakers work together but don’t often play together. When you have two fiercely opposing parties, that can be a problem.
As recently as 20 years ago, many more lawmakers made their homes in Washington than they do now. Their jobs required them to be in the nation’s capital – if not to vote on legislation, then to attend committee hearings, supervise staff and the like. And the price of metropolitan Washington real estate was not as outrageous as it is now, so buying a home was within reach for many. It’s worth noting that last year as many as 100 of them, including former House Speaker Paul Ryan, slept in their offices when in town, leading some to suggest lawmakers be awarded a housing allowance.
“Many portray their refusal to rent property in Washington as a mark of virtue, signifying rejection of the swamp’s corrupting culture,” Bloomberg Opinion scolded in an editorial.
Since 2007, the number of working days for members of both the Senate and the House has steadily declined, affording lawmakers the opportunity to return home more often (typically every weekend) to see their families and visit with constituents.
But before it became fashionable to eschew Washington and its dysfunction, members of Congress typically lived among one another. Their kids went to school together. Their spouses became friends, irrespective of which party they belonged to. Family members often went to the same church and belonged to community organizations that had common goals.
That all seems to have changed for the worse. If you’re a lawmaker and you don’t know your opponents outside of the workplace, it’s much easier to objectify them when you have policy differences. After all, you can vilify political adversaries with minimal risk that you’ll run into them at your kid’s soccer game, the post office, or a Cub Scout meeting.
Common sense tells us that this sort of social detachment amplifies the divisions in Washington and makes compromise much harder to achieve. The last two senators I can recall from opposing parties who were close friends and worked together to pass meaningful legislation were known as the “Odd Couple” – Democrat Teddy Kennedy and Republican Orrin Hatch.
On another level, lawmakers whose loved ones live with them in Washington are more likely to have stronger families because mom or dad isn’t on the road for half the year. Indeed, Murphy cited a desire to spend more time with his family as a reason for the DC home.
Say what you want about his politics, but I for one applaud Murphy’s decision to live most of the time with his family in Washington. If more lawmakers followed his lead, maybe Congress would become a little more productive and its families a little tighter.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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