Some in Congress choose couch over D.C. housing - East Valley Tribune: News

Some in Congress choose couch over D.C. housing

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Posted: Sunday, November 16, 2008 5:44 pm | Updated: 8:41 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your congressmen are?

At least on days when Congress is in session, chances are that two of Arizona's 10-member congressional delegation are hunkering down for the night on couches in their government offices.

Neither Rep. Jeff Flake nor Rep. John Shadegg own or rent housing in the Washington, D.C., metro area. Instead, they sleep most Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights in the spacious inner offices of their respective office complexes on Capitol Hill.

They are among legions of U.S. senators and representatives who merely bunk rather than reside in Washington. Most congress members who sleep in their offices slumber on sturdy leather couches that otherwise are used to receive staff, constituents and other guests.

The practice is widely accepted at the highest levels of government, but rarely publicly discussed.

When told that the Tribune was preparing a story about who sleeps where, office-sleeper Flake said, "Please don't. I never lied to anybody and said I don't do it, but it's, I don't know, people think ... "

He let the thought go unfinished.

Political analysts and political opportunists alike are happy to finish the thought - no matter what sleeping arrangements they're thinking about.

For example, Sen. John McCain's abundance of residences in Washington, Phoenix and elsewhere across the country became one of the more sensational aspects of his unsuccessful presidential campaign this year.

And former challengers to Rep. Rick Renzi often argued that he and his family actually lived in his Washington-area home rather than anywhere in Arizona's 1st Congressional District, a swath of real estate larger than Illinois. Renzi's place of residency was a moot point this year, because he opted not to run for re-election as he was preparing to fight dozens of counts of public corruption leveled in federal indictments.

In contrast, the idea that members of Congress sleep in their offices sometimes is branded as juvenile, or borderline creepy.

Flake said that for him, the decision is based purely on economics.

"I'm a cheapskate. I've got kids to put through college," he said.

"The truth is - I don't know what the figure is - but there are dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens. I would put the figure probably at, probably, I don't know, 60 or 70 or 80 members that do that," he said.

Those dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens of U.S. senators and representatives are trying to stretch their paychecks further. Rank-and-file members are being paid $169,300 this year and are scheduled to receive a cost-of-living increase in their paychecks next year.

They receive no housing allowances and are responsible for making their own living arrangements in a city where rents are notoriously high.

For example, last week, the Web site listed one-bedroom condominiums near Capitol Hill for $1,400 to $1,900 a month, which comes to $16,800 to $22,800 a year.

Stories are rife in Washington of congressional members who rent dank basement apartments in brownstones and others who crowd three or four into rental houses to split the cost.

Other factors make office housing somewhat appealing, Flake said.

"I have a couple of multimillionaire colleagues who do that just because it's less of a pain to have a place," said Flake, a Republican who represents Arizona's 6th District, which takes in Gilbert, Queen Creek and Apache Junction, plus parts of Mesa and Chandler.

Most years, Congress is in session for about 120 days, making it difficult to maintain a part-time residence, he said. Also, the long and unpredictable hours on days when Congress is in session add to the appeal of office flopping.

Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Harry Mitchell said he never considered sleeping in his office - at least purposefully.

"Sometimes you have to fight sleep in committee meetings," he joked. "I don't even like to eat in my office. I like to get away from that," he said.

Mitchell, who was elected to Congress in 2006, rents a two-bedroom apartment with a view of the Potomac River and, during the winter months when the trees are bare, the Jefferson Memorial.

His wife spends about two weeks a month in Washington, and his children and grandchildren often visit and stay in the second bedroom.

However, he'll have to find new accommodations soon. The owner sold the apartment and Mitchell has no plans to relocate into his government office.

Mitchell conceded, however, that as a retired schoolteacher who has lived in the same house in Tempe for 42 years, he doesn't have the same family responsibilities nor expenses as other members with young children in their home states.

"People with young families, I don't know how they can commute back and forth. That's pretty tough," he said.

Members such as Flake and Shadegg make do with the limited facilities available to them in their offices.

Most members of the Senate and House maintain offices in separate office buildings rather than in the Capitol. The offices have small bathrooms equipped with toilets and sinks, but no showers.

Showers and lockers are available at the respective Senate and House gyms. Members access the gyms through a series of underground walkways and trolleys, so they never have to bear winter weather to grab a shower.

Members typically are discrete and wear gym clothes or athletic warm-up suits as they move about the government complex during the early-morning hours, according to congressional staff members. Gym attire also is somewhat common during the lunch hour and evening hours in the office buildings, which are mini-cities.

No members shuffle through the halls of Congress in bathrobes and slippers.

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