SALT LAKE CITY — After two days on the job as a U.S. Senator, Mike Lee will officially be sworn in on the senate floor Wednesday by Vice President Joe Biden.
But for Lee, one critical question remains unanswered: where to live.
"Everyone seems to have an answer," Lee said. "But the advice I get from one person tends to be very different from what I get from another person."
"Some people tell me, 'Definitely move your family to Washington and then just come back to Utah every few weeks when you can for a few days at a time.' Others feel equally passionately about the fact that I should leave my family in Utah and fly home every weekend and then spend the duration of every recess in Utah."
The question of where Lee lives is a dilemma that has confronted Utah senators for generations, and it's one that gets at the heart of what it means to represent your state in Congress. Can Lee be more effective advocating for the needs of Utahns by living in DC (punctuated by regular visits home), or does he need to fly home every weekend to stay in touch with the needs of his constituents?
What Lee decides could also have significant consequences for his political career. Former GOP Sen. Bob Bennett lived in D.C., which ultimately may have cost him his job because many Utahns felt that after 18 years living in the nation's capitol he had lost touch with Utah voters. Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz, on the other hand, comes home every weekend, which has seemed to endear him to GOP delegates and voters.
For Lee, the question may come down to family. He and his wife Sharon have three children, twin boys (who turn 16 on Thursday) and a 10-year-old daughter. Lee says his kids wish to continue living in Alpine in order to maintain present friendships. The Lees decided that uprooting the family in the middle of the school year is out of the question, but the issue will be revisited later this year.
"I promised the kids that they can stay in Utah at least until the end of the school year," Lee said. "We'll wait until the summer before deciding whether or not to move the family back."
Thirty-four years ago, Sen. Orrin Hatch faced a similar decision. Ultimately Hatch chose to purchase a second home in Virginia.
"When I was first elected my wife Elaine and I felt strongly that our family should live together under one roof as much as possible," he said. "I knew then and I know now that I am much more effective as a Senator with my family by my side. … There were many weekends when I had to leave them as I traveled to and from Utah — but during the week we were all together as a family. In addition, our family returned to Utah together as often as possible when Congress was not in session."
Unlike Hatch, all three Utahns serving in the House of Representatives opt to keep their families living in Utah. That's partly because it's easier for Representatives to commute back and forth on a weekly basis given that they sit on far fewer committees than Senators, and less committee commitments means more flexibility for leaving town early enough to actually have a full weekend at home.
Members of Congress receive no housing stipend, but trips taken in the course of business between their home states and Washington, D.C., are fully reimbursable. Thus, if the junior senator from Utah lives in Washington he'll save taxpayers the burden of paying for a weekly commute that tends to average about $750 round trip.
Lee, regardless of what decision his family eventually arrives at, is inevitably looking at a lot of time aboard airplanes during the duration of his Senate service.28 comments on this story
"No matter what, I'll be operating on two ends of the country," he said. "On the one hand I'll need to be in Washington most weeks for most of the week. But also I will need to be in Utah as often as I can.
"I've never had a job until that requires such constant movement between one part of the country and another. That's going to take some time to figure out the appropriate balance."
U.S. senators, by the numbers
76: Orrin Hatch's age
39: Mike Lee's age
61: median age of 100 U.S. Senators
37: Orrin Hatch's age when Mike Lee was born
5: Mike Lee's age when Orrin Hatch took office
3: Senators in their 80s
2: Senators in their 30s (Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is also 39)