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Who was that weird guy wandering around in his bathrobe in the halls of the Rayburn House Office Building the other night? Oops, never mind, it's a congressman.
With a growing number of House members saving money by sleeping in their Capitol Hill offices, a watchdog group has asked the Office of Congressional Ethics to determine whether they're breaking the rules, or unfairly enjoying a tax-free benefit, with their rudimentary free housing.
"House office buildings are not dorms or frat houses," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). "If members didn't want to find housing in Washington, they shouldn't have run for Congress in the first place."
Rank and file members of the House have offices in one of three buildings adjacent to the Capitol -- the Rayburn, Longworth or Cannon -- and most of the suites have bathrooms, sinks and perhaps even a kitchenette. In the past, a handful of pennypinchers would sack out on sofas or air mattresses in their offices to avoid paying rent in Washington -- which can run $1,500 to $2,000 monthly for a one-bedroom -- or simply to show the folks back home what little they cared about the culture of the capital.
In some cases, crash pad congressmen say they do it to save time: "The job requires late nights and early mornings, and a short commute lets me focus on the work that's important to my constituents," Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) told Politico.
But it's gotten endemic this year, according to the citizens group. Crew said at least 33 representatives -- all men -- have been identified in news reports as crashing in their offices. The frugal fellows trek off to the House gym for their showers and shaves. They hail from as close to Washington as Delaware and Virginia, and from as far away as California and Arizona. Five of them represent Arizona districts, reportedly including freshman Rep. Ben Quayle, son of former Vice President Dan Quayle.
CREW questioned whether the austere lifestyle violates a ban on using taxpayer resources -- a congressional building's facilities -- for anything other than performance of official duties, which probably doesn't include sleeping and bathing. In addition, the watchdogs argued that the lodgings constitute a taxable benefit, just as legislators' reserved parking spaces at the Capitol are imputed taxable income.
Since most House members commute from their districts, many of them have the burden of assuming both a house payment and monthly rent -- or in some cases two house payments. They make $174,000 annually, but most maintain their primary residences and families in their home districts and travel back and forth throughout the year. Some save by sharing spartan apartments near the Capitol.
But CREW seemed unsympathetic to the money-saving or workaholic arguments. "If legislators are going to treat their offices as dorm rooms, at the very least they should pay the appropriate taxes," Sloan said. "In any event, it brings discredit upon the House for members of Congress to sleep in their House offices, making it more difficult for housekeeping, maintenance and construction crews to do their jobs. And really, who wants to run into a member of Congress in need of a shower wandering the halls in sweats or a robe?"
The official ethics office has not said what action, if any, it will take.
Folo Tom Diemer on Twitter http://twitter.com/tomdiemer
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