The House is their home: Freshman reps are sleeping on the job to make a point

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On Capitol Hill, the freshman term has become performance art.

The new Republicans who shook up Washington last week - forcing their party to take a staggering whack at the budget - are also trying to shape a new idea of what a congressman is. In some cases, that means approaching their terms as one-man shows.

Some have rejected their health insurance to dramatize their objections to government-run care. One will print his own letterhead to demonstrate his frugality. Another is giving back 15 percent of his pay.

And several are living in their own offices, in a gesture of contempt for the city outside.

"I live in McHenry, Illinois. I do not live in Washington, D.C.," said Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.). Three nights a week, Walsh relies on a bedtime ritual involving milk and spicy peanuts (and, occasionally, Scotch) so he can relax enough to sleep in the Cannon House Office Building.

The logic behind these gestures can get muddled. Doesn't living in your office cost taxpayers more? And what's wrong with getting health insurance through your employer?

But these freshmen are betting that the larger point resonates: In a country angry at government, they want voters to be sure their congressman is uncomfortable.

"This city is seductive," said Walsh, a former investor and tea party favorite who upset the Democratic incumbent by 292 votes. "Many of the freshmen will probably turn. But I won't. I came here to be a model of this kind of representation."

There are at least 13 House freshmen - out of 96 - who have tried one of these tactics.

The group is all male and almost all Republican: The only Democrat is Rep. Hansen Clarke (Mich.), who is living in his office. "I need to be able to work up to 20 hours a day and still get some decent sleep," he said in a statement.

Several freshmen have also asked to get out of the congressional pension system (they can't). Rep. Richard Nugent (R-Fla.) said he's going to pay for some of his own stationery: "If I write a letter of recommendation for somebody . . . we're purchasing the letterhead."

Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.) is giving 15 percent of his salary back to the government and cutting down on another perk: free postage for office mailings. "No more than two pieces per year. Plain recycled paper. I think it's wrong to use taxpayer money to build name identification," Rigell said.


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