Members of the House of Representatives who live in their Capitol Hill offices shouldn’t get too comfortable.
The practice is going under the knife from the new Democratic leadership. Top Democrats are considering making the live-in lawmakers pay for bunking in prime government real estate — or ending the practice altogether.
“How would you feel about attending a meeting in someone’s bedroom?” asked Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, a veteran member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has spoken against the practice for years.
Office-dwellers counter that the practice is frugal and efficient.
“My constituents want me to do the job they elected me to do,” said Rep. Andy Barr, R-Kentucky. “They appreciate frugality too and appreciate the fact I’m focused on doing my job and not moving into Washington.”
The black caucus has long been appalled by the arrangements.
“A lot of our Republican colleagues are very hard on people in public housing ... when they in fact are living in public housing, without paying any taxes on it,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-Louisiana, a former caucus chairman.
Thompson called the practice “nasty,” saying it’s freeloading on the government’s dime. He’s been trying to end the practice for years.
“Free janitorial, free cable, free security, free utilities. Ain’t a bad deal, is it?” said Thompson, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee. “The reality is, you’re gaming the system.”
Not true, said office-dweller Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Kentucky.
“They’re going to clean your office anyway and we’re using the gym we pay for. If I thought there was an expense to the government by doing it, that would be different,” he said.
The initial fate of the sleep-ins in the House rests with its administration committee.
Chairwoman Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-California, said the panel will tackle the issue later this year. She has already asked the Architect of the Capitol, a nonpartisan informational source for members, to provide an estimate of the fair market value of living in a congressional office.
“There’s a lot of sentiment that that is not something that should be permitted,” Lofgren said.
But she’s not sure there an obvious solution, asking “How do you enforce it?”
The practice of lawmakers living in their offices is more common in the House than in the Senate, where no members have confirmed they live where they work. On average, senators tend to be wealthier than House members, though their salaries are the same.
There’s no official count of how many members live in their offices, but reports put the bipartisan number somewhere between 50 and 100.
Some sleep on mattresses in their multi-room office suites that they then stow in closets during the day, others on futons and still others on Murphy beds that fold into the wall.
There are members-only gyms where they can shower and laundry facilities on Capitol grounds.
Members from all over the country sleep in their offices, including Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, and Reps. Ted Budd, R-North Carolina, Steve Watkins, R-Kansas, Barr and Guthrie. Before stepping down earlier this month, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, slept in his office while in Washington.
Some office-dwelling lawmakers argue that if they weren’t allowed to bunk in their workspace, congressional seats would only be occupied by millionaires who could afford to maintain two residences.
Rank-and-file members of Congress make $174,000 annually. The House speaker earns $223,500 while the majority and minority leaders in both chambers receive $193,400.
Members living in those offices, such as Watkins, said it should be their right to do so, given that they also need to maintain homes in their districts and Washington, D.C. rent is costly.
In August, Washington, D.C. had the nation’s 26th highest average monthly rent at $2,145, according to Rent Cafe, a national apartment listing service.
The average cost of rent in Washington for a studio apartment is $1,642 per month, according to Rent Cafe. The average cost of a studio in the Capitol Hill neighborhood is $1,808 per month. That doesn’t include utility costs.
“It’s a preference of mine to save money — I’m a newlywed, and my wife and I would like to buy a house in the district,” said Watkins, who currently rents a property in his Kansas district. “We don’t have enough money to do so, and this is a way for us to save up.”
Thirty members of the Congressional Black Caucus — including Thompson, House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-South Carolina, and House Committee and Oversight Reform Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland — sent a letter to the House Ethics Committee in 2017 questioning “the legality and propriety of a significant number of members choosing to use their Congressional offices as overnight lodging facilities.”
“Staff members and other House employees are subjected to seeing and at times interacting with members in their sleeping attire, underwear, and even partially nude,” the letter states. “This is intimidating and offensive; thus, contributing to a hostile work environment.”
The practice continued.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri, a black caucus member, said it’s also annoying that some lawmakers use sleeping in their office to boast to voters back home that they haven’t been seduced by the Washington swamp because they haven’t purchased or rented a home there.
Former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, used to conduct video “cot-side chats” on his congressional website, speaking into a camera from the foot of a cot inside his office. He once called the cot “The No. 1 attraction in my office.”
“People who live in their office and get all this praise about sacrifice are, in fact, living off the government whereas I have to pay,” said Cleaver, a United Methodist minister who pays $2,000 a month for a rent-controlled unit in the United Methodist building near the Capitol. “My rental payment in Washington is greater than my mortgage in Kansas City.”
Lofgren said the process for addressing the housing issue would start with public hearings, though she said it’s hard to say when that will happen since her committee has to attend to other priorities first. The final decision could ban members from living in their offices altogether or charge them for using the space.
Thompson said Congress needs to address the lodging situation by either raising lawmaker’s salaries — a politically unpopular move that’s unlikely — or finding other creative ways to make living outside their offices economically feasible.
“Either we address it to the point that we do a per diem, which we don’t have which other state assemblies and legislatures do when they’re in session,” said Thompson, who has rented the same Capitol Hill efficiency apartment for 25 years. “Or give me the ability, if my job requires me to be somewhere else, that I could deduct the cost of that somewhere else on my taxes.”