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 years: Representative 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.