Caution, Babies Voting

Posted April 20, 2018 9:07 p.m. EDT

You’ve probably heard that the U.S. Senate has agreed to let its members bring their babies onto the Senate floor. This would be happy news at any time, but it does have a special attraction in a week when the second most cheerful story was probably the discovery that Sean Hannity is Client No. 3.

OK, maybe you prefer Donald Trump’s ongoing stripper crisis. Or the video of him groping Rudy Giuliani in drag. I admit there’s a lot going on. But let’s relax and talk about Senate babies.

Like many strides forward in women’s history, this one has a heroine with a mind-boggling level of achievement. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, was a helicopter pilot in Iraq who lost both legs in a combat crash. After she returned home she got elected to Congress and now, at age 50, has become the first U.S. senator to give birth.

Once Duckworth knew she was going to have a baby, she and Amy Klobuchar, the top Democrat on the Rules Committee, worked on changing the, um, rules so that any senator with a baby on his or her hands could bring the infant onto the floor when there’s a vote. (In case you’re wondering, there’s another rule that says the lawmakers cannot ask staff members to baby-sit.) They took a middle approach — the rule had to apply to everyone, not just Duckworth. But they limited their target to children under age 1.

There wasn’t any real public controversy. No politician wants to go on record as being anti-baby. Suggestions that Duckworth just hang out in the nearby cloakroom until it was time to rush in for the vote died off rather speedily when it was pointed out that the cloakroom is not accessible to a war hero in a wheelchair.

Still, Klobuchar said, there were reservations. Some of their colleagues muttered that if you gave new mothers an inch, the next thing you knew, they’d be nursing on the Senate floor.

“In a classified briefing I kind of poked some of them on the shoulder and said, ‘Did you guys have a question on breast-feeding?'” Klobuchar recalled. “Then it was, ‘Nononononono.'”

There were also complaints about the possibility of debate being drowned out by crying babies. This presumes that senators are so eager to listen to their colleagues’ speeches they would want to hang around even when their infants were howling in protest.

And while there have been some incidents of disruptive behavior — like the 19th-century House member who nearly beat a senator to death with his cane — none of them ever involved child care.

Duckworth was supposed to have a 12-week maternity leave, but she promised to return if her vote was really needed. And Thursday, when her daughter Maile Pearl was only 10 days old, there was a super-close vote on the nomination of Jim Bridenstine to be NASA administrator. Bridenstine, a Republican member of the House, does not have much of a background in aeronautical science, unless you count time spent running the Tulsa Air and Space Museum. Plus, the fact that he’s a climate-change hedger made some people wonder about the science part.

Nevertheless, he squeaked through by one vote. It seemed like an inauspicious way to introduce Maile Pearl to the democratic process, but fortunately the baby slept through everything. When she’s 10 and gets to see pictures of her public debut, maybe they can tell her it was all about animal rights or better schools.

It’s always a good thing when our elected officials experience the same daily-life stresses as their constituents. Until fairly recently, historically speaking, congressional-work-parenting tensions mainly involved making it to school recitals, while everything else was left to the stay-at-home wives. It wasn’t until the 1980s that then-Rep. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., became the first member of Congress with small children and a full-time working spouse.

Now it’s getting normal. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., whose husband spends part of each week working in New York, has vivid memories of the critical 5-to-6 p.m. crisis time in which her kids had to be scooped up from child care and tended to until the baby sitter arrived. “They started calling votes a lot at that time, for some reason,” she recalled. Gillibrand decided the safest place to leave her toddlers “was in [Majority Leader] Harry Reid’s reception area.”

The baby-vote rule is a welcome sign that members of the House and Senate are becoming more aware of how difficult it is for working couples to balance jobs and child care. And people like Duckworth have also sponsored legislation to make life easier for them.

Do not take this as a signal to sigh in satisfaction. The current congressional majority has hardly translated that new sensitivity into a big investment in early childhood education or after-school programs.

Still, in the interest of mental health, feel free to take whatever victories we get. The Senate is now ready to let babies on the floor for a few minutes, and soon may even manage to end the practice of settling members’ sexual harassment suits with public cash.

Someday, maybe we’ll be able to say that the infants are sleeping but the place is totally woke.

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