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GOT THE BICOASTAL BLUES AREA'S CONGRESSIONAL COMMUTERS FEEL WEEKLY JET LAG.

Byline: Bill Hillburg Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - Bleary eyes, jet lag and conflicting missions are all adding up to a raging case of bicoastal disorder for Southern California- based House members and their families.

Critics of the system that has local U.S. House of Representatives members crossing the continent every week and maintaining two homes say there must be a better way to legislate in the age of the Internet. Traditionalists argue that the grind of maintaining strong presences at home and on Capitol Hill merely comes with the job.

``My husband often flies to Washington for three votes and then flies back home. There's got to be a better way,'' said Janis Berman, wife of Rep. Howard Berman, D-Mission Hills. ``We've got the technology that could let members vote from their districts.''

Berman himself said the idea of long-distance voting has some appeal - up to a point. But going cross-country - even for only a handful of votes - also has some arguments in its favor.

``There's a lot more to it when I go to the House floor to vote,'' said Berman, who was first elected to Congress in 1982. ``Those 15- to 30-minute sessions are also a chance to do business. I talk with colleagues and committee chairmen about legislation and things I want done for my district.''

Rep. David Dreier, R-Covina, who chairs the state's Republican congressional delegation, is opposed to any notion of a virtual Congress.

``There's nothing that can take the place of personal interaction on the House floor, away from the laptops, cell phones and lobbyists,'' said Dreier, who also piles up air miles on weekly jaunts to and from Washington.

Distance voting, he added, ``could undermine representative government. Imagine you're about to cast a vote in your Los Angeles office with a bunch of protesters picketing outside. You're much better off being on the House floor, thinking about the issues and listening to your colleagues.''

A typical week finds House members in session Tuesday through Thursday and spending elongated weekends in their districts. In addition to their homes, most maintain second residences in Washington, where rents are sky-high. The cost of multiple homes must be paid out of their $150,000-a-year salaries.

Janis Berman, who once pitched a TV sitcom idea to Hollywood about four House members sharing a bachelor pad, recalled the days when lawmakers and their families spent most of their time in Washington and socialized on the weekends. That largely ended in 1995, when Republicans took over the House after 40 years of being out of power.

A new ``family-friendly'' format espoused by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, now a Washington-based lobbyist, compressed Congress' working week and encouraged members to head home after adjournment. Lawmakers who lingered inside the Capital Beltway were branded as being out of touch with their constituents.

``The traveling works against collegiality,'' Howard Berman said. ``There's less time to socialize with other House members and do things in common.''

Janis Berman - who dropped her TV project, titled ``Four in the House,'' after Hollywood writers turned her semi-serious ``dramedy'' into a farce - said the new format works for East Coast lawmakers with short commutes but puts an undue strain on those from the West.

``There's no social scene in Washington now and very little connection with other people on the Hill,'' said Janis Berman, who moved back to the San Fernando Valley so the couple's daughters could be close to other relatives and attend school in Southern California. ``Members and spouses used to go out to dinner on the weekends. Now everyone is always on a plane somewhere.''

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, can attest to the strain placed on young families.

``It really hit me on Halloween, when I wasn't able to be with my wife and daughter, Alexa. She's 3 years old and trick-or-treating is really a big deal for her. I hate to miss moments like that, you never get them back.''

Schiff, who has another child on the way, said he mentioned his Halloween distress to a House colleague and was told to ``get used to it.''

``My wife, Eve, and I made a decision to keep our home in Burbank,'' said Schiff, formerly a state senator, who traded a 45-minute plane commute from Sacramento for a five-hour red-eye from Washington.

``I've tried to save money by changing from a one-bedroom apartment to a studio and I've become expert at assembling Ikea furniture. In fact, my studio looks like an Ikea showroom.''

Air fares for members are covered by their office operating budgets. Members can also qualify for a $3,000 federal income tax credit to defray part of the cost of maintaining two homes.

``Rent here is as much as a mortgage in my district,'' said Rep. Hilda Solis, D-El Monte, who pays $1,100 a month for an efficiency apartment near the Capitol. ``The physical demands of all the traveling are tough, but I still feel that it's a privilege to be here in Washington.''

``No one drafts me for this job,'' Howard Berman said. ``By and large, I love what I do. The travel and the separation are part of politics and elected office. It's the price you pay. But the rewards greatly exceed the costs.''

Hollywood still has shown renewed interest in the double lives of Washington lawmakers, some of whom share housing or even sleep in their offices to cut down costs.

Pundit Al Franken of ``Saturday Night Live'' fame recently pitched CBS a sitcom loosely based on the adventures of Rep. George Miller, D-Concord, and his three congressional roommates. The network recently opted to instead develop a lawmaker sitcom for Nathan Lane, star of ``The Birdcage'' and Broadway's ``The Producers.''

``I'm really disappointed,'' Franken said during an appearance at the National Press Club in Washington. ``I think I really had a good premise and pilot script, but that's Hollywood.''

Franken's sitcom was to feature three veteran House Democrats rooming with a freshman, right-wing Republican.

Rep. Gary Miller, R-Diamond Bar, is the closest thing to TV sitcom grist among the House delegation from Southern California. The conservative shares a suburban Virginia apartment with daughter Elizabeth, an activist with Witness for Peace, a Washington-based human rights group that is often critical of U.S. foreign policy.

``We have some very interesting discussions at the dinner table,'' said Miller.

WHO AND WHERE

Southern California's congressional representatives divide their time between Washington and the West Coast:

Rep. Howard P. ``Buck'' McKeon, Republican, office in Santa Clarita: Town home in suburban Virginia, home in Stevenson Ranch. Commutes each weekend. Shuns Airbus jets because of lack of legroom in economy class.

Rep. Brad Sherman, Democrat, office in Woodland Hills: Apartment in Washington, apartment in Sherman Oaks. Commutes each weekend.

Rep. Henry Waxman, Democrat, office in Los Angeles: Home in Washington area, apartment in Los Angeles. Commutes an average of every three weeks.

Rep. Howard Berman, Democrat, office in Mission Hills: Apartment near Capitol Hill, home in Valley Village. Commutes each weekend and visits his mother in Orange County.

Rep. Adam Schiff, Democrat, office in Pasadena: Studio apartment on Capitol Hill, home in Burbank.

Rep. Elton Gallegly, Republican, office in Oxnard: Condo in suburban Virginia, home in Simi Valley. Commutes each weekend.

- SOURCE: staff research

CAPTION(S):

2 photos, box

Photo:

(1) U.S. Rep. Howard Berman, D-Mission Hills, stands outside his home away from home in Washington, D.C., where he spends half of his week.

Evan Vucci/Associated Press

(2) Janis Berman, wife of Mission Hills-based U.S. Rep. Howard Berman, poses with their dog, Phoebe, at their home in Valley Village.

Phil McCarten/Staff Photographer

Box:

WHO AND WHERE (see text)
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 11, 2002
Words:1278
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