KIOS-FM

Lawmakers Hope New House Day Care Will Keep Staff On Capitol Hill

Jan 1, 2019
Originally published on January 2, 2019 9:16 am

Within sight of the U.S. Capitol dome, a new dome is about to open. It's on the playground of a new day care facility exclusively for U.S. House employees, and the playground is designed in part to look like a kid-sized National Mall.

"This is the only Washington Monument in D.C. that you can climb up," joked House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who helped inspire the playground's design.

McCarthy will become minority leader in the next Congress, but as majority leader he used the office to secure space in a government building adjacent to the Capitol — and more than $12 million in taxpayer funds — for a 26,000 square foot, state-of-the-art childcare facility.

The first phase, opening this week, will provide care for up to 120 infants and toddlers. The second phase will add 122 preschoolers in about a year. The expansion will reduce the House day care's waiting list from three years down to just one, making it much easier for new parents to plan for childcare.

This use of taxpayer funds could open up Congress to criticism, but McCarthy says the goal here is to keep highly qualified staff on the Hill. The day care is only available to House employees. (The Senate operates its own day care facility that continues to have a lengthy wait list.)

"If somebody is working for you and wants to continue to serve government, but says 'I don't have day care so I can't stay here, the wait list is too long, the quality is not there,' then you are disadvantaging who can actually serve and work in government at the same time," he told NPR.

The wait list for the House day care had become so long that staffers were signing up before they were even pregnant. "I've had friends who the minute they got engaged, they're putting themselves on the list," said Melissa Murphy, chief of staff to Rep. David Rouzer, R-N.C., who has two children currently in the day care.

Murphy said it's common for congressional staffers to make a reluctant decision to leave the Hill for more lucrative jobs in the private sector, when they decide to start a family. "It's really upsetting to see because they make the decision to leave the Hill and leave public service because the cost of private day care is difficult to maintain on some of the congressional salaries," she said.

The House day care costs between $1100 and $1700 a month — a fraction of the cost of comparable private day care in the Washington, D.C., area, which ranks as one of the most expensive places in the country to raise children.

Lawmakers get no special treatment. "I never made it off the list," said Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., "I had to keep looking like everyone else does. You get on a list, you hope it works, and if it doesn't work you've got to make something happen."

NPR identified only two members of Congress — both male lawmakers — who currently have their children enrolled in the day care.

Herrera Beutler is one of only ten lawmakers who have given birth while serving in Congress. She is also trying to recruit more young women to run for office, and she said childcare concerns are one of the biggest deterrents for women to run. She hopes the new day care can help change that culture, too.

"The message is: You can make this work. For the good of the country and for the good of your family. And so I feel like the day care facility was just another opportunity to give that option so that we get more women — so we are going to be more representative of the American people," she said.

The new day care could also open up Congress to public criticism that lawmakers are willing to provide quality, affordable, subsidized childcare for their own, but have done little legislatively to ease the crushing costs of childcare for American families.

Outgoing Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kansas, played a lead role in securing the taxpayer funds for the day care expansion. Yoder said he sees it as Congress setting a standard for the private sector to compete against.

"Congress is trying to lead and make it clear that as a governing body we think it's important that employers put childcare as a priority," he said.

And as of this week in the House of Representatives, it is.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

While many federal buildings in Washington, D.C., remain closed due to the shutdown, one government facility will be open for the first time tomorrow. It's a new daycare for the House of Representatives that will cut the wait list for new parents from three years down to one. Lawmakers say they want to make the House a more competitive employer with the private sector. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis has this report.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: In the shadow of the U.S. Capitol dome, a new dome is set to open. It's on the playground of a new day care facility which is designed to look like a mini National Mall, with kid-sized landmarks like the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument. And House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy is pretty stoked about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN MCCARTHY: This is the only Washington Monument in D.C. that you can climb up.

DAVIS: The California Republican becomes minority leader when the new Congress begins Thursday. But during his time in the majority, he helped secure the office space in a building adjacent to the Capitol and more than $12 million to build this state-of-the-art day care facility. That use of taxpayer funds could open up Congress to criticism. But McCarthy says the goal here is to keep highly qualified staff on the Hill.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCARTHY: If somebody is working for you and wants to continue to serve government but says, I don't have day care, so I can't stay here - the wait list is too long, the quality is not there - then you're disadvantaging who could actually serve and work in government at the same time.

DAVIS: In recent years, the wait list for the House day care became so long that staffers were signing up before they were even pregnant.

MELISSA MURPHY: I've had friends who, the minute they got engaged, they're putting themselves on the list.

DAVIS: That's Melissa Murphy. She's chief of staff to North Carolina Republican Congressman David Rouzer. Her two kids are currently in the House day care. Murphy says it's common for staffers to make a reluctant decision to leave the Hill for more lucrative jobs in the private sector when they decide to start a family.

MURPHY: It's really upsetting to see because they make the decision to leave the Hill and leave public service because the cost of private day care is difficult to maintain on some of the congressional salaries.

DAVIS: The House day care costs between $1,100 and $1,700 a month, a fraction of the cost of comparable private day care in the D.C. area. This modern, 26,000-square-foot facility will be able to care for up to 120 infants and toddlers. It's only a benefit for House employees and members of Congress. But lawmakers get no special treatment over staff. Just ask Washington Republican Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler.

JAIME HERRERA BEUTLER: I never made it off the list (laughter).

DAVIS: Herrera Beutler is one of only 10 lawmakers who have given birth while serving in Congress. She says childcare concerns are one of the biggest deterrents for women to run.

HERRERA BEUTLER: The message is you can make this work for the good of your country and for the good of your family. And so I feel like the day care facility was just another opportunity to give that option so that we get more women who are going to be - so we're going to be more representative of the American people.

DAVIS: Criticism for the new day care could come because lawmakers have worked to provide quality, affordable, subsidized childcare for their own but have done little to ease the same burden on American families. Outgoing Kansas Republican Congressman Kevin Yoder played a lead role in the day care expansion. He says the House is setting a standard for the private sector to match.

KEVIN YODER: Congress is trying to lead and and make it clear that, as a governing body, we think it's important that employers put childcare as a priority.

DAVIS: And as of tomorrow, in the House of Representatives, it is.

Susan Davis, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.