Family Time on the Hill

FIVE years ago Rep. Pat Schroeder (D) of Colorado summed up the prevailing attitude in Washington by observing, ``A person who talks about family issues is perceived as dealing with the mundane, not with power.''

How times are changing for the better! Today members of Congress - many of them first- and second-termers with school-age children -

recognize that there is nothing mundane or unimportant about families. They also acknowledge that the erratic schedules of Congress - committee hearings that start early in the morning, floor sessions that often run late into the evening, recesses that don't always coincide with school vacations - create some of the most antifamily working conditions anywhere.

That recognition led to the formation last week of a bipartisan Family Quality of Life committee, headed by Rep. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia. It is to study ways to make the House's legislative schedule friendlier to families.

Admitting that the legislative workday has been ``very destructive'' to the family life of House members, Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, set to become the new Speaker, has said that he wants to make Congress a ``more humane'' workplace. Among other ideas, he has suggested possibly setting aside one night a week when members could leave early enough to spend time with their families.

This Family Quality of Life initiative may represent a baby step - or a giant step. Yet whatever the outcome, the committee's very existence deserves accolades for several reasons.

First, it addresses a problem endemic in Washington, one of the most workaholic cities. Improving workday schedules for politicians' families should ultimately have a trickle-down effect, benefiting staff members' families as well.

Second, the effort sends an important message to private employers, asking, in effect: If the federal government understands the importance of family time, shouldn't the business community do likewise?

Finally, the committee's makeup is innovative: It will include spouses and children. Who better to offer eyewitness accounts of family events postponed, children's parties missed, and school conferences not attended? Corporate America could undoubtedly learn a lot by creating similar initiatives.

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