ROUKEMA, Margaret Scafati

ROUKEMA, Margaret Scafati
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1929– 2014


For more than two decades, Representative Marge Roukema of New Jersey used her seat on the House Financial Services Committee to help Americans access affordable housing using a combination of federal programs and private enterprise. Personal tragedy helped prompt Roukema toward a career in politics and factored into one of her great legislative successes: the Family and Medical Leave Act, which provided job protection and time off for many Americans to care for loved ones. “In a day and age when the majority of families need two paychecks to get by, it is inconceivable that we do not have a minimum guarantee of job security when a medical emergency strikes,” Roukema wrote in the New York Times. “The debate over the Family and Medical Leave Act is not about Federal mandates or benefit packages. It is about values and a standard of decency, and protecting the jobs of workers who are trying to hold on to the American dream.”1

Margaret Roukema was born Margaret Scafati in Newark, New Jersey, on September 19, 1929. She was named after her mother. Her father, Claude, was a first-generation Italian American who worked as an auto mechanic. Roukema earned a bachelor’s degree in history and political science from Montclair State College in 1951 and then pursued graduate studies there. In 1975 she did graduate work in city and regional planning at Rutgers University. She worked as a high school teacher in American history and government before marrying Richard W. Roukema, a psychiatrist. The couple raised three children: Greg, Todd, and Meg.

Roukema’s first public service position was on the board of education in Ridgewood, New Jersey, where she served from 1970 to 1973. Her political activity was, in part, spurred by her 17-year-old son, Todd, and his battle with leukemia. Roukema put aside her plans to attend law school to care for her son who succumbed to the disease in October 1976. Roukema later recalled that in the aftermath of her son’s death, she searched for an emotional and intellectual outlet.2 She became active in local party politics as the first woman elected president of the Ridgewood Republican Club in 1977 and 1978. In 1977 she supported Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Kean, first as a volunteer before quickly rising to become his campaign coordinator in 30 towns.

Roukema’s experience helping Kean’s campaign led her to launch her own candidacy for office. In 1978 she challenged incumbent Democrat Andrew Gene Maguire for a seat in the U.S. House from northern New Jersey in a district that encompassed Bergen County and included the towns of Paramus and Hackensack.3 On Election Day, Roukema lost by a margin of about 9,000 votes, 53 percent to 47 percent.4 In 1980 Roukema criticized Maguire for being “out of touch” with the district and challenged him again. Aided by the strong turnout for Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan that year, Roukema won the seat by a margin of 9,000 votes. In 1982, after the district lines were redrawn to include Sussex County, Roukema claimed an even larger margin of victory: a plurality of 50,000 votes against Democrat Fritz Cammerzell. In 11 re-elections, she never had a viable Democratic challenger and captured between 65 and 71 percent of the vote. In her final two Republican primaries in 1998 and 2000, however, she faced stiff challenges. Against a state assemblyman in the 2000 primary, Roukema won by less than 2,000 votes, before again dominating the general election with 71 percent of the vote.5

When Roukema entered Congress in 1981, she received assignments on the Committee on Education and Labor (later renamed Education and Workforce) and the Committee on Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs (later renamed Financial Services). She sat on both committees for the duration of her career in the House, and eventually chaired two Financial Services subcommittees: Housing and Community Opportunity; and Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit. In addition, Roukema worked on the Education Reform and the Employer-Employee Relations subcommittees of Education and Workforce. In the 98th Congress (1983–1985) she joined the newly formed Select Committee on Hunger as its Ranking Republican; she served on the Hunger Committee for a decade until it was disbanded in 1995.

Roukema’s committee assignments enabled her to work on a number of policies important to her district, including welfare reform, job training, child support, and family leave. As Congress considered ways to amend welfare, Roukema came out strongly for job training programs conducted by the private sector, believing they were more successful in placing unemployed individuals into jobs.6 During debate, Roukema came out against a provision that allowed those individuals receiving government aid to attend a four-year college as a way to fulfill the work requirement. “Welfare reform should not become another adjunct of our higher education program,” she said.7 The committee ultimately rejected her attempt to remove the provision.8

In 1983 Roukema introduced the National Child Support Enforcement Act to strengthen child support collection. In order to qualify for certain Medicaid funding, states were required to pass laws allowing child support payments to be automatically withheld from a parent’s wages following a finalized court order. She prioritized a modification that applied to individuals of all economic classes, not just those on government assistance.9 “Automatic withholding of wages removes the children as pawns,” she wrote in a New York Times op-ed.10

In August 1984, President Reagan signed a different child support bill into law that Roukema had cosponsored. The act included a wage withholding provision but first required a court to rule that payments had been 30 days late.11 When Republicans began working on welfare reform after taking over the House majority in 1995, Roukema’s colleagues accepted an amendment she offered that allowed states to revoke driver’s licenses from residents with late child support payments.12 She argued her bill would expedite payments and ultimately lower federal spending.13 Citing data from states with similar procedures in place, Roukema told the House that when driver’s licenses were in jeopardy “Parents miraculously come up with the money that they swore wasn’t available.”14 In 1996, after vetoing a previous version of the bill, President William J. (Bill) Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which included Roukema’s provision.15

Her biggest legislative achievement was the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, a bill that Roukema and Democrat Patricia Schroeder of Colorado had worked on for years. The legislation required large companies to extend unpaid leave to new parents, workers who had a disability, and those caring for chronically ill relatives. During negotiations on the bill Roukema secured an exemption for small business; it ended up being the key compromise which helped the measure pass. “Is the Family and Medical Leave Act a radical departure from the traditions of American labor law? Not at all,” she wrote in the New York Times in 1990. “It is completely consistent with established labor standards that gave us such protections as child labor laws, anti-sweatshop codes and the 40-hour work week. As society has changed, we have always adjusted our labor standards to meet the new circumstances.”16

Roukema’s experience caring for her son when he was ill shaped her perspective on the issue. “When my son Todd was stricken with leukemia and needed home care, I was free to remain at home and give him the loving care he needed,” Roukema said in a speech on the House Floor. “But what of the millions of mothers who work for the thousands of companies that do not have family leave policies?”17 Roukema later recalled, “The tragedy with Todd was what made me so determined about the Family and Medical Leave Act.”18

While Roukema worked with Republicans to lower costs and limit federal spending, she generally tended to cross party lines to vote with Democrats on social issues; she supported abortion rights and gun control, for instance. In 1994, she was one of just 11 Republicans to vote with Democrats to ban assault weapons as part of a large anti-crime bill.19

As Roukema gained more seniority, she became more critical of the GOP’s conservative turn during the 1980s and 1990s. Amid an investigation into the fundraising practices of House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Roukema suggested that an interim Speaker be named until the House Ethics Committee finished its probe. When the House levied a $300,000 fine against Gingrich for breaking ethics rules, Roukema insisted that he pay it from personal rather than campaign funds.20 During a speech on the House Floor in May 1997, she condemned Republican efforts to cut $38 million in funding for a major nutrition program for children and pregnant women. “We are not going to take food out of the mouths of little babies!” she declared. “Don’t we ever learn?” In an interview at the time she warned, “Our party will either become a true majority party, or a regional party” rooted in the South. “And the way you maintain a majority,” she concluded, “is to find consensus within your party.”21

By the 107th Congress (2001–2003), Roukema was the Ranking Republican on the Financial Services Committee, but party leadership skipped over her when picking the new chair. “The fact that I was a woman had something to do with it,” she told the New York Times. Her outspokenness and her refusal to raise prodigious amounts of campaign money for her party also contributed to the decision, she added. “I was an Independent voter in Congress, and I voted my conscience and my state,” Roukema recalled several years later. “That brought me down in [leadership’s] estimation. I was not elected to do what leadership [said]. I was elected to do what my intelligence, my conscience, and my constituents needed…. That was my reason for being in Congress.”22 In 2001 she was offered a position as United States Treasurer in the George W. Bush administration but turned down the offer to serve as chair of the Financial Services’s Housing and Community Opportunity Subcommittee.

Roukema used her power as subcommittee chair to steer three of her housing bills through the Financial Services Committee, two of which passed the House. In May 2001, she introduced the Senior Housing Commission Extension Act which gave a federal panel more time to develop guidelines for aging-in-place. It also created partnerships between businesses and government agencies to provide housing and care for people who need it. The bill passed the House in September 2001.23 Armed with the housing subcommittee gavel, Roukema also worked with Democratic Senator Paul Spyros Sarbanes of Maryland in July 2001 to introduce the Mark-to-Market Extension Act. The bill protected a federal program which helped the Department of Housing and Urban Developing lower rents for people living with government assistance in multifamily properties while also providing mortgage relief for housing developments. The Mark-to-Market Extension Act passed the House in September 2001.24

A few months later, in March 2002, Roukema introduced the Housing Affordability for America Act. The huge bill, which was also marked up in the Judiciary Committee, came after 13 hearings on affordability issues in Roukema’s Housing and Community Opportunity Subcommittee. “Congress must continue to seek ways to remove the barriers that prevent certain segments of the population from realizing the American dream of homeownership,” the Financial Service’s report on Roukema’s legislation said. “One way to do that is to provide opportunities that allow families to acquire and build wealth toward the goal of homeownership.” At the heart of the bill was a compromise that created a federal grant program to match state and local “trust funds” used to provide low-cost housing. “Clearly,” the committee report continued, “States and localities are better equipped to know how best to meet the housing needs of their communities.” The bill also opened opportunities for first-time homebuyers, changed how the Federal Housing Authority calculated mortgage limits, and worked to find solutions to help elderly Americans grow old at home. Roukema’s bill made it out of committee but was never voted on in the House.25

In November 2001, Roukema announced that she would not seek re-election to a twelfth term. At the time of her retirement in January 2003, Roukema was the dean of her state delegation and the dean of the women Members. She returned to New Jersey where she served on the boards of several nonprofits dedicated to children’s issues. She also lectured about politics at several universities.26 Roukema suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease and died on November 12, 2014, at the age of 85, in Wyckoff, New Jersey.27


1Marge Roukema, “Mr. Bush, Keep Your Promises to American Families,” 20 June 1990, New York Times: A25.

2Melinda Henneberger, “Preaching Moderation on Her Own Side of the Aisle,” 20 July 1997, New York Times: Section 13NJ: 2.

3Raymond Hernandez, “Pushed to the Margins, She Stood Her Ground,” 6 January 2002, New York Times: Section 14NJ: 1.

4Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

5“Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

6Marge Roukema, “Federal Job Training Needs the Private Sector,” 3 June 1982, New York Times: A22.

7“Job Training Bill Advances in House,” 16 July 1987, New York Times: A28.

8Rich Spencer, “House Panel Approves Sweeping Welfare Changes,” 16 July 1987, Washington Post: A8; Fair Work Opportunities Act, H.R. 30, 100th Cong. (1987).

9National Child Support Enforcement Act, H.R. 3354, 98th Cong. (1983).

10Marge Roukema, “To Force Child Support,” 4 October 1983, New York Times: A27.

11National Child Support Enforcement Amendments, PL 98-378, 98 Stat. 1305 (1984).

12H. Amdt. 326, 104th Cong. (1995).

13Elizabeth Shogren, “Clinton Calls for Tougher Child Support Enforcement,” 19 March 1995, Los Angeles Times, 1995-03-19-mn-44663-story.html; Mike Dorning, “License Loss a Real Threat to Deadbeats,” 10 April 1995, Chicago Tribune, https://www.

14Robert Pear, “House Bill Links Licenses to Child-Support Payment,” 24 March 1995, New York Times: A22.

15Work Opportunity Act, H.R. 4, 104th Cong. (1995); Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, PL 104-193, 110 Stat. 2105 (1996).

16Roukema, “Mr. Bush, Keep Your Promises to American Families.”

17Karen Foerstel, Biographical Dictionary of Congressional Women (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999): 236.

18Bob Ivry, “Home from the House: Roukema in Transition after 11 Terms in Congress,” 1 December 2002, Bergen Record: A1; Congressional Record, House, 103rd Cong., 1st sess. (3 February 1993): 405–407.

19Politics in America, 2002 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2001): 637–638; Ivry, “Home from the House.”

20Foerstel, Biographical Dictionary of Congressional Women: 236.

21Congressional Record, House, 105th Cong., 1st sess. (14 May 1997): 2603; Henneberger, “Preaching Moderation on Her Own Side of the Aisle.”

22Hernandez, “Pushed to the Margins, She Stood Her Ground”; Ivry, “Home from the House”; Jackie Kucinich, “Female GOP Committee Leaders Are a Rarity in the House: Some Point to Family Concerns, Need To Toe Party Line as Reasons Men Dominate,” 6 October 2005, The Hill: 30.

23Senior Housing Commission Extension Act of 2001, H.R. 1850, 107th Cong. (2001); House Committee on Financial Services, Senior Housing Commission Extension Act of 2001, 107th Cong., 1st sess., H. Rept. 147 (2001): 2.

24Mark-To-Market Extension Act of 2001, H.R. 2589, 107th Cong. (2001); Mark-To-Market Extension Act of 2001, S. 1254, 107th Cong. (2001); House Committee on Financial Services, Office of Multifamily Housing Assistance Restructuring Act of 2001, 107th Cong., 1st sess., H. Rept. 196 (2001): 3.

25Housing Affordability for America Act of 2002, H.R. 3995, 107th Cong. (2002); House Committee on Financial Services, House Affordability for America Act of 2002, Part II, 107th Cong., 2nd sess. H. Rept. 640 (2002): 51–54, quotations on 51 and 52.

26Miles Benson, “Out of Congress, Not Down and Out; Members Depart With Pensions, Plethora of Perks,” New Orleans Times–Picayune, 19 December 2002: 7; Joseph P. Fried, “Spending Time at Home After Career in House,” 15 June 2003, New York Times: 23.

27William Yardley, “Marge Roukema, 11-Term Congresswoman, Dies at 85,” 13 November 2014, New York Times: B19.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

Library of Congress
Manuscript Division

Washington, DC
Papers: In the Russell J. Mueller Papers, ca. 1971-1998, 26 linear feet. Persons represented include Marge Roukema.

Rutgers University Libraries
Special Collections and University Archives

New Brunswick, NJ
Papers: In the League of Women Voters of New Jersey Records, 1920-1991, 20 boxes. Persons represented include Marge Roukema.

University of Oklahoma
The Julian P. Kanter Political Commercial Archive, Department of Communication

Norman, OK
Sound Tape Reel: 1984, 1 commercial on 1 sound tape reel. The commercial was used during Marge Roukema's campaign for the 1984 U.S. congressional election in District 5 of New Jersey, Republican Party.

University of Wyoming
American Heritage Center

Laramie, WY
Papers: In the Alan K. Simpson Office Files, ca. 1978-1990, amount unknown. Persons represented include Marge Roukema.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Margaret (Marge) Roukema" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Adminsitration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

Roukema, Marge. "Congress and Banking Reform I." In "Symposium: The Direction of New Jersey Banking." Seton Hall Legislative Journal 16 (1992): 481-90.

Tomlinson, Barbara J. "Making Their Way: A Study of New Jersey Congresswomen, 1924-1994." Ph.D. diss., Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey - New Brunswick, 1996.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Banking and Financial Services
    • Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit - Chair
  • House Committee - Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs
  • House Committee - Economic and Educational Opportunities
  • House Committee - Education and Labor
  • House Committee - Education and the Workforce
  • House Committee - Financial Services
    • Housing and Community Opportunity - Chair
  • House Committee - Select Committee on Hunger
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