The Pence Rule and Reality

by Jim Talent

The discussion of Mike Pence’s eating habits — specifically, his refusal to eat dinner, alone, with a woman, while he was serving in the House — continues back and forth. Evidently for some, Pence’s policy seems to have implications for social justice; the charge is that he disadvantaged his female staff by refusing to have dinner alone with them, thereby depriving them of social access to the boss and the career-enhancing advantages that would result.

I’ve been amazed that in the discussion no one has pointed out an important contextual fact: Members of Congress rarely have dinner, in a restaurant, alone, with anyone.

The one thing always in short supply for sitting members of Congress is time. There are always things to do and always people to see, if not to do the job itself than to do the politics that are necessary to stay in office so that you can keep doing the job.

Of course, members have to eat. That includes dinner. Dinner is a very valuable time as far as office priorities are concerned, and is quite often scheduled; and when it is scheduled, it is almost always with a group of people. The point is to spread the member’s time as thin as possible to see as many people as possible.

A member might have dinner with a delegation from the Corn Growers Association when they visit Washington. He might be hosting his own fundraiser, or he might attend a colleague’s fundraising dinner as a favor; having other members come to one’s funders enhances their value. He might attend a small think-tank dinner, typically to speak or hear from a discrete gathering of experts who were interested in one of the member’s priority issues. He might go out with other members, though usually this happened on the spur of moment or late in the evening after voting concluded.

But if dinner could be scheduled — that is to say a) if you were in town, and b) the House was not voting through dinner (because if the House is voting, you can’t go far from the Capitol for dinner anywhere, lest you miss a vote) — then the staff would almost always schedule the time for some useful purpose. And again, the most purposeful use of the time involved a small group of people — usually six to 20, though sometimes a few more. And unless one single person was so important, politically or otherwise, as to justify a minimum of 90 minutes, and probably two hours, of exclusive member time, you always had dinner with a group of people.

Now, staff might well come along for these dinners. In fact, staff usually did come along, if the dinner group represented an issue area for which the staff was responsible. When I had dinner with the Corn Growers, my legislative assistant for agriculture would always attend; he or she needed the contacts, and the information, as much or more than I did. But it was always with a group.

If Mike Pence had forbidden his female staffers to attend one of these dinners, that would have interfered with her professional development. But of course that is not what he did.

By the way, one advantage of having dinner with a group of people is that, typically, that means someone else can ethically pay for it; if a member has dinner with one person, the rules generally require that he buy his own meal, though if it’s a political rather than business dinner members can, within limits, charge it to their campaign fund.

So if a member is having dinner with one person, in a restaurant, it is almost always for a very important reason, with a very big donor, a very important grass-roots leader or journalist, or a very close personal friend — or a spouse. I would have been upset with my scheduler if she had reserved my dinner time for one person except in extraordinary cases. And the last person you would have dinner alone with is someone from the staff. Why should you? They already support you (if they don’t, you have a bigger problem than your spouse’s feelings); you can pick their brains or share your thoughts with them any time; and you see them during the day anyway.

Of course there might be special occasions when the member’s time would be scheduled for dinner, or more typically lunch, with staff: birthdays, impending parenthood, when someone was leaving for a new job, or some other special occasion. But on those occasions it would also be a group event, with others in the office attending as well.

The same goes for the days in the district. In fact, district time is even more tightly scheduled, because there are so many more people it is important to see. When I was in the district (which was every weekend; I did not move my family to Washington) I had to formally reserve evenings for family; as in most offices, family time was jealously guarded.

Now, there are of course dinners that are not scheduled, typically when the House is working on the floor late, and there are votes. On those evenings, members typically look for a free, quick meal (sometimes the whip’s office would provide buffet food) or have something delivered to their office, or pick up something late after voting on the way home, or sometimes (the default plan) go out somewhere close to the Capitol with other members. (It is as important, though for different reasons, to network with colleagues as it is with other stakeholders.) A member might eat with the staff, in the office, on those late nights, but again it would typically be 15 minutes, with a group, eating pizza or Chinese food.

So while I don’t question the prudence of the Pence rule, I do question its necessity. I doubt seriously that Mike Pence, while he was serving in the House, had many dinners alone with anyone other than family or a close personal friend, and certainly not with his staff, including the men.

During all my years in the House and Senate, I had the same chief of staff. He and I became very close friends. I still value the friendship tremendously. If he and I ever ate dinner in a restaurant alone even once, I can’t remember it.

The bigger issue for me, from the standpoint of avoiding temptation, was working late in the office while staff was around. That can and does happen. If for example the House is working on the Farm Bill (to stick with the agricultural theme of this column), the member’s agriculture staffer is probably staying late to help with issues in case there are votes. If the member is male and the ag staffer is female, or vice versa, and no one else is around, that could raise an issue.

When I entered the House in 1993, I was 36 years old. My family, which included two small children, stayed in my district in St. Louis. I had an informal personal guideline; when I worked late, I tried to make sure that I was not alone in the office with one female staffer. So my chief of staff and I would simply arrange to make sure that either no female staff, or more than one staff member, stayed late with me. We didn’t make a big deal about it, and certainly no one lost a professional opportunity because of it.

My reasons were similar to Pence’s; I didn’t want to compromise either myself or the staffer. My staff was located, as is typical, in an annex across the hall from my office, but still I thought it wise to prevent, insofar as reasonably possible, suspicion from being raised because of activity after normal working hours.

Washington is for certain purposes like a small town. Members are celebrities. When they go somewhere, they are noticed; at least they should assume they are noticed. Rumors spread quickly, and — even before the days of social media, much less now — they spread back to the member’s district more quickly than one might think.

If a new member asked me how to prioritize his schedule, or how to balance family responsibilities against the job, I would counsel him, for both purposes, not to have dinner alone with anyone other than family unless it was necessary, not to have dinner alone with a young person of the opposite sex unless it was unavoidable, and not to have dinner alone with staff at all. There are safer things to do for your marriage, and better things to do with your time.

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