'The Place Is Not a Frat House'

Members of Congress have been bunking in their offices for years, but now the Congressional Black Caucus is questioning the practice as inappropriate freeloading and a misuse of federal resources.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

It’s a congressional tradition that’s been around for decades and almost always cast in a glowing light: Dozens of lawmakers sleep in their offices while they’re in Washington to escape the exorbitant cost of rent and the corrupting culture of America’s most hated-upon company town.

Their ranks include the most powerful men in Congress—House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. “I just work here. I don’t live here,” Ryan once said in explaining why he’d continue to spend half his nights sleeping on a cot even after assuming the nation’s second-most powerful elected office.

As frequently depicted in the media, these denizens of the Capitol are hardworking, humble, and frugal. They’re also, according to a group of their colleagues, flagrantly breaking the rules.

Thirty members of the Congressional Black Caucus have questioned the practice in a letter to the House Ethics Committee, and two veteran Democrats plan to introduce legislation in the coming days to prohibit it altogether. They say that  it’s not only inappropriate for members of Congress to bunk in their offices, it’s a blatant misuse of federal resources. “We just think that’s not proper,” said Representative Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who is leading the push and plans to join Representative Jackie Speier of California in seeking a ban.

Seen from a different perspective, lawmakers who sleep in their offices are essentially squatting in a fancy government building. They pay no rent and no electrical bill; they have access to free cable and internet, showers and restrooms in the House gym, as well as a cleaning service—all at the taxpayers’ expense. With apartments on Capitol Hill frequently renting for upwards of $2,000 a month, Thompson argued that members of the so-called “couch caucus” were fleecing the government of as much as $25,000 or $30,000 a year.

He pointed out that members of Congress already have to pay taxes on the reserved parking spaces they use in the Capitol garages. “Well, if I’m parking my body in an office, at a minimum we should put some value on what that’s worth,” Thompson told me in a phone interview. “And that member should receive the same kind of tax notice or benefit notice that we receive from parking. But they don’t.”

The tradition of sleeping in the Capitol has drawn occasional protests over the yearsRepresentative Dick Armey, who would go on to become majority leader, began holing up in the House gym in the 1980s, until then-Speaker Tip O’Neill reportedly evicted him. And in 2012, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a complaint citing many of the same issues the CBC is raising now. House rules require members and staff to use government resources, buildings, and equipment only for official purposes or “incidental personal use”—making an occasional phone call or sending an email, for example.

“If you’re sleeping in your office several nights a week, that’s far more than an incidental personal use,” CREW’s former executive director, Melanie Sloan, told me. “It’s clear that you’re misusing official resources.”

Driving the latest push to restrict or ban the practice is the recent spotlight on workplace harassment and sexual misconduct, which has ensnared a handful of lawmakers in both parties. The CBC’s letter, which was first reported last week by Politico, said members who sleep in their offices subject staffers to seeing them “in their sleeping attire, underwear, and even partially nude,” and they place an added burden on cleaning staff to tidy up after them and make offices presentable for constituent meetings. Lawmakers, he said, are occasionally spotted walking down the hallways early in the morning wearing only a bathrobe, presumably after using the House gym to shower.

“Members,” Thompson said, “are entertaining constituents in what conceivably could be called their bedroom.” Capitol cleaning staff, he added, should not be “chambermaids for members of Congress.”

The issue also hints at tensions surrounding the wealth disparity among lawmakers and a perceived double standard in prosecuting ethics complaints. Rents in Washington D.C. have soared over the last two decades, and while members of Congress won’t attract much sympathy with their $174,000 annual salaries, they must be able to afford housing both in their home districts and in Washington. Thompson said he’s lived in the same Capitol Hill studio apartment since he arrived in Congress in 1993, and the rent is now $1,400 a month.

Those who choose to sleep in their offices are often—though not entirely—white male Republicans who aren’t doing so out of financial necessity but because they want to signal to constituents that they’re living humbly and haven’t “gone Washington.” It becomes a statement about their politics as much as a pragmatic accommodation. As Representative Todd Rikita of Indiana told The New York Times in 2011: “I am much too fiscally conservative, not only with the people’s money but with my own, to pay that much money.”

Though there are Democrats and even a few women who sleep in their offices, the practice has long been a sore spot within the CBC, Thompson said, whose members generally aren’t as wealthy as other lawmakers and who occasionally feel unfairly targeted in ethics investigations. “So we say, well, here’s a glaring situation where we think other members either because of their influence or whatever are not being held to a similar kind of standard,” Thompson told me. “We just don't want a double standard to exist within Congress.”

The CBC sent its letter to the Ethics Committee in December, but so far there’s been no response. “Not a word,” Thompson said, noting that members routinely ask the bipartisan panel for advisory opinions on ethically-murky practices. When I asked Tom Rust, the committee’s staff director and spokesman, for a response to the CBC’s complaint, he replied: “No comment.” And when I followed up by asking if any of its 10 members slept in their offices, he replied again, “No comment.” AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Speaker Ryan, did not reply to a request for comment.

Thompson and Speier will soon unveil a legislative ban on the practice. But beyond the unlikely chance of passing a bill, there are few other alternatives, and each could lead to political blowback. Thompson suggested forcing members to pay for the right to use their offices as makeshift apartments, much as they are taxed for their parking spaces now. Former Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah boasted about his modest office abode while in Congress, but soon before he left last year he proposed giving members of Congress a $2,500 monthly housing stipend. That would amount to a $30,000 annual pay increase, costing taxpayers at least $16 million a year. Thompson said a stipend or congressional pay raise were “both options,” noting that federal judges had received a salary boost to $200,000 a year but legislators had seen nothing and actually lost a $3,200 deduction in last year’s GOP tax-cut bill.

Sloan had a more novel suggestion: Congress should build a lawmaker dorm, modeled on a development aimed at young professionals under construction in San Francisco. Dorm-style living might not be the ideal solution in an industry already prone to sex scandals, but, she argued, it would be an improvement over the choice between paying high rents or debasing Capitol offices. “It's kind of disgusting,” Sloan said. “I mean, the place is not a frat house. It’s a place of business.”