Nothing strikes fear in the heart of most Americans like the image of a congressman in pajamas.
Thankfully, the new Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives is willing to take on this long-festering abuse in Congress by putting an end to the practice of allowing the nation’s lawmakers to bunk down in their own offices. Or, at least, making them pay for it.
Wisconsin, of course, has not been immune to this wink-and-nod-off practice. Former House Speaker and 1st Congressional District representative Paul Ryan was notorious for coming home to Wisconsin to be with his family on weekends and — frugal man that he is — didn’t rent an apartment in Washington, D.C., preferring to sleep in his office and showering in the morning in the members-only gym provided for congressional representatives.
He must be an early riser, because we have never seen a report of Ryan bumping into a group of visiting Wisconsin tourists as he headed for the gym wearing a bathrobe with a towel draped over his shoulder carrying a dopp kit.
“Well, hello, where are you guys from?”
It’s difficult not being sarcastic over this tempest, but apparently it has become a real issue for some congressmen — and, for whatever reason, the Congressional Black Caucus has opposed the practice for years.
Two years ago, 30 members of the black caucus sent a letter to the House Ethics Committee challenging the legality and propriety of the sleep-ins.
“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 said. “This is intimidating and offensive; thus contributing to a hostile work environment.”
“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.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, called the sleep-in practice “nasty” and asked, “How would you feel about attending a meeting in someone’s bedroom?”
“Free janitorial, free cable, free security, free utilities. Ain’t a bad deal is it?” Thompson said, “The reality is, you’re gaming the system.”
Defenders of the practice say it’s just a matter of being frugal and keeping expenses down, particularly since representatives are required to keep a residence in their home districts.
While representatives make $174,000 per year, the costs of maintaining two residences can chip into that, particularly when the average monthly rent in Washington, D.C. is a robust $2,145 — or more than $25,000 a year, according to news reports.
That’s a bit of an incentive — for anyone. And, according to the news reports this week, the numbers of representatives going the live-in route has been estimated at 50 to 100 congressmen. At the high end, that would mean about 23 percent of our representatives are overnighters.
“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,” according to news reports.
So it’s become a regular cottage industry in House offices.
The new Democratic House leadership is taking the task seriously and the administration committee has asked the Architect of the Capitol for an estimate of the fair market value of living in a congressional office.
Perhaps they’ll end up charging the live-in Representatives at the going rate. Or maybe, in the interest of plugging a few dollars into the national coffers, they’ll jump ahead and offer rentals to tourists when the congressional reps are out of town. (We wonder how much the Pelosi suite would go for on a weekend.)
Or, perhaps, they would just order the duly-elected squatters to pack their bags and get out.
It wouldn’t be the first time we saw a congressman with his undies in a bundle.