U.S. Lawmakers Shouldn't Be Sleeping in Their Offices
(Bloomberg View) -- In most of the U.S., sleeping in the office is frowned upon. Two notable exceptions are Silicon Valley -- and Capitol Hill. As many as 100 members of Congress, including the speaker of the House, bunk down in their work spaces every night. For the sake of their fellow government employees and the public, they need to wake up.
The modern practice of congressional squatting dates to the 1980s, when future Majority Leader Dick Armey crashed in the House gym. The ranks of the "in-office caucus" swelled with the influx of Tea Party Republicans in 2010; some members keep wardrobes in their offices and sleep on cots or inflatable mattresses. Many portray their refusal to rent property in Washington as a mark of virtue, signifying rejection of the swamp's corrupting culture.
It may also be illegal. Fire codes aside, squatters benefit from free utilities, cable TV and internet access, and cleaning services. This may violate congressional ethics rules, which prohibit members from using official resources for anything other than incidental personal needs. At the least, lodging on government premises should be treated as a taxable fringe benefit -- in the same way that congressional parking spaces are.
Aside from the legal considerations, there are other issues. The risk of elected representatives appearing in various states of undress is more than awkward -- it is unacceptable, especially given revelations about the prevalence of sexual harassment in the Capitol. Aides are often obliged to clean up their bosses' living quarters, which only adds to the dysfunction and abuse that characterizes office environments on the Hill.
To be sure, maintaining a second home isn't a trivial expense for most lawmakers, even on a salary that's roughly three times the median U.S. household income. Other countries provide living allowances to legislators, or offer space in public housing or dormitories. A $2,500 monthly housing stipend, as suggested by a departing member of Congress last year, may not be realistic in a political climate where members just eliminated a meager $3,000 annual tax deduction for living expenses. But it's better than living in a lobbyist's condo or office squatting.
The U.S. Capitol was designed not as a congressional dormitory but as a place to conduct the people's business. As the bartender might say: You don't have to go home, lawmakers, but you can't stay here.
--Editorial: Romesh Ratnesar, Michael Newman.
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