For members of Congress, living in their Capitol Hill offices has long been seen as a quirky display of frugality. But a handful of politicians are coming forward to say the practice is unprofessional and needs to end.
Capitol Hill may be the only workplace in the nation where dozens of offices turn into the boss’s bedroom at a certain hour. There are no formal policies that dictate how a member must separate living and working in the same space. It’s a system whose defenders cite tradition and fiscal restraint, and that has long been the subject of gentle humor. But in an era when the notion of a bunch of middle-aged men in pajamas is more horror than comedy, critics say it’s exactly the sort of behavior that crosses the lines of a professional environment and merits further consideration.
“I think it is unseemly. I’m not saying that these persons are engaged in sexual harassment. It is just wrong,” California Rep. Jackie Speier told BuzzFeed News. “We should prohibit living in your offices, and we should allow members to deduct the cost of their living expenses here up to a certain amount.”
It’s not clear how many politicians sleep in their Washington offices, but several members said they believe the number is over 100. The self-described “in-office caucus” can be seen workday mornings heading in droves to the Rayburn office building to shower in the House members’ gym.
The nightly sleepover even includes members of House leadership. Members typically keep changes of clothes in the closet and sleep on cots, pullout couches or inflatable beds. Each member’s office contains a bathroom and they typically put ‘do not disturb’ signs on the door so that cleaning staff doesn’t waltz in with a vacuum overnight.
No public sexual harassment allegations related to Congress have been linked to members sleeping in their offices. But Democratic Rep. Cheri Bustos, who recently discussed the matter with Speier, said in an era where Congress is taking a new look at sexual harassment, members shouldn’t be turning their office into their bedroom every night and that it warrants further consideration.
“I worked in the private sector my entire career until coming here,” Bustos said. “And you just think about some of these things that we’re hearing about, and the things that are viewed as — that just happen out here. That’s not normal. It’s not normal to use your office as your bedroom.”
California Rep. Mark Takano briefly raised the issue of ending office living during a meeting of House Democrats Wednesday morning. Takano declined a request for comment, but a spokesman said he “supports exploring any opportunity to prevent sexual harassment in this workplace.”
Members of the House typically make a salary of $174,000 per year. They do not receive a housing allowance and cannot deduct rent payments against their taxes. By sleeping in their offices, members are saving on DC rent costs that typically run near or over $2,000 per month.
Ask a random member of the House if they sleep in their office and you will likely get one of two responses. You’ll either get a look that loosely translates to “what are you, nuts?” or some variation of the argument: My life is back in my district, I’ve got a mortgage back in my district, why should I spend all that rent money over a few days per week in Washington?
“It’s not as creepy as it sounds,” said Kansas Rep. Lynn Jenkins, who says she wakes up around 5 a.m. and works well into the evenings. "[Staff] never are in my office when I'm getting ready for bed or sleeping. I don't think staff would even know that I live there. I mean I think they do, but they wouldn't necessarily.”
Former Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina touted the practice as a way of building camaraderie and told BuzzFeed News he got to know a Democratic member of the House well because they were both sleeping in their House offices. “I wish that everyone did. I wish that there were barracks here,” he said.
And members say between their busy schedules and the locks between their personal office and the rest of the office, there are enough workplace policies in place to protect them from any of the awkward situations their critics imagine.
“When I go to my office, everybody's gone. I don't go to my office till usually 10:30 or 11 at night. I work all the time,” said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a member of GOP leadership who sleeps in his office. “My doors are always locked, and there's another entrance into the office, to the back office."
The best-known member to sleep in his office is House Speaker Paul Ryan, who told reporters Thursday that he does it out of “convenience” and does not see his staff when he returns to his office for the night. Ryan’s spokeswoman said they did not know how many members slept in their offices and had not heard any complaints about the matter.
Michael Steel, who served as spokesman for former House Speaker John Boehner, said it is extremely easy for members to avoid awkward situations just by locking their doors. All member offices contain a staff area and a distinct room for the member, separated by a door that locks. Steel said it is unfair to link allegations the practice of members sleeping in offices to the issue of harassment.
“I think it’s ridiculous. Engaging in inappropriate activity has zero correlation with a member’s decision to sleep in their office. It’s a sensible reaction to the high cost of rental housing in Washington, DC,” he said.
For some politicians, office living can be part of an election pitch. Michigan Republican Rep. Bill Huizenga said his predecessor, Pete Hoekstra, lived in his office for years and constituents expected the tradition to be continued.
“Honestly, on the campaign trail people would ask me, ‘well you’re going to sleep in your office aren’t you? Like Pete?’” he said. “They view it that if I’m that careful with my own money they feel a little better about letting me be careful with their money too.”
The tradition of members of Congress sleeping in offices goes back decades. Former House majority leader Dick Armey, a Republican, is credited with starting the practice in the ‘80s. And while some Democrats are known to sleep in their offices, the practice appears to be more popular among Republicans, particularly those elected in the 2010 tea party wave on a promise of fiscal responsibility.
Speier and other critics have also questioned whether politicians who sleep in the office are receiving an unfair benefit because they rely on taxpayer-funded housekeeping services. The House Administration Committee did not respond to an email asking if it had ever looked into the issue.
Speier said she’s considering legislation to ban office living, but an easier solution would be would be making it cheaper for politicians to get an apartment or hotel. States such as California and New York provide living allowances for legislators for days the legislature is in session. Introducing a new allowance for politicians may be a tough sell to voters, but Speier said a reasonable solution would be to allow politicians to deduct the costs of their secondary lodgings against their taxes.
Other members also said they worry about the potential of unprofessional encounters.
“[It] can be potentially an awkward situation when you have someone living and dressing in their office where people are professionals who report to you are also coming to work every day,” said Democratic Rep. Katherine Clark.
Questions about the propriety of members sleeping in their offices have been raised before. Melanie Sloan, a former executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a high-profile lawyer who accused Rep. John Conyers of mistreatment, sent a letter to the Office of Congressional Ethics in 2011 asking for an investigation into conduct of members who sleep in their offices. She said the issue was raised to her by another member of Congress who found it “ridiculous” that his colleagues slept in their offices (she would not name the member).
“Inevitably people who work long hours or come in early are going to at some point see a member in a nonprofessional setting,” she said.
In the letter, Sloan raised the issue of sleeping in offices as both a potential misuse of federal resources and as “unseemly.” She told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday she never heard back on the letter and OCE has not publicly responded.
A current spokesperson for CREW said in an email to BuzzFeed News, “This really isn't something we've looked at in years.”
The House Committee on Ethics declined to comment when asked whether it has tracked the practice and whether there have been calls to reconsider allowing members to sleep in their office given all of the sexual harassment allegations coming to light in Congress now.
The conversation may be starting, but there is currently no active movement to change the rules around sleeping in offices. Given how many members choose that lifestyle, it would likely not be an easy tradition to do away with.
“We’re all human, we gotta do business,” Inglis said. “In other words, we don’t need to over-sexualize sleeping in the office. It’s like, what a bizarre thought.”
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Rep. Lynn Jenkins is a congresswoman from Kansas. An earlier version of this article misstated her home state.