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

By David A. Fahrenthold
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; C01

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.

At least eight freshmen have also made a public show of declining congressional health insurance. That health insurance is subsidized by the government: If a congressman opts for the most costly family plan, the cost to taxpayers could be about $10,500 per year.

"It would have been very easy to just sign on and save my wife and I nine grand a year. Who the hell doesn't want to do that?" said Nugent, the Florida Republican. He kept the benefits he enjoyed as a county sheriff by signing up for COBRA - but it costs him $1,200 per month, vs. $400 for the congressional plan.

"But I believe in the principle of it," Nugent said.

Among the eight, many turned to a spouse's insurance or a personal health savings account. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), a dentist, uses his medical training to triage his children's minor injuries and holds down his costs. Walsh will have to pay out-of-pocket for a procedure his wife needs.

An exception is freshman Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), who announced in December that he would decline congressional insurance. "Members of Congress shouldn't have access to premium health care benefits when millions of Americans are struggling just to make ends meet," his campaign Web site said.

But Johnson will still get health insurance from the government. A retired Air Force officer, he has coverage through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

There is a precedent for such gestures, a tradition of legislators politicizing their personal decisions. In World War II, legislators rushed to enlist in the military to prove their patriotism. More recently, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) declined congressional health insurance for 18 years to dramatize the need for a national health-care overhaul. He has now signed on.

What's different this time, historians say, is the degree to which these freshmen have embraced the idea.

"Your smartest, most attentive constituents - even they will not be able to discern all the effects of the bills that you pass, and the votes that you can take," said Charles Stewart III, a scholar of Congress at MIT. That, he said, makes this kind of broad political mime valuable. "There's no utility in it. But it tells a story that resonates with people, [which is] 'I hear you. I understand you.' "

"Just pray that these guys that are turning down the health insurance don't get cancer," Stewart said. "I would hope they've thought this through. They probably haven't."

The best-known of these performing freshmen may be the ones - there are at least seven of them - who are living in their offices.

They are joining several dozen incumbents who sleep in their offices: some to save money, some to make the same point about Washington's evils. It's not that housing in the city is beyond reach, since a congressman makes $174,000 per year.

But they don't want to be seen paying rent here.

"This," said Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) - who inflates his air mattress near a "Don't Tread on Me" flag - "is not us."

These legislators usually spend three nights a week snoozing in their offices. Finding a place to shower is the easy part. They walk through tunnels to use the facilities in the House gym. Dinner is harder: The basement vending machines offer fare like the "Big Az Burger."

It can also be hard to relax in a room where you've spent all day shaking hands and studying bills. Walsh follows a ritual designed to mentally transform his office into a bedroom. He carefully lays out his sheet, blanket and pillow on the couch. He sets out milk and spicy peanuts as a snack: "I've gotta have my milk . . . right there, so I know I'm in a bed."

Sometimes milk doesn't do it. "Sometimes it's a shot of Scotch," Walsh said.

These gestures strike some as hypocritical: This freshman class ran on a promise to save taxpayers money. But living in one's office would seem to do the opposite - taxpayers have to spring for extra electricity, extra showers. A spokeswoman for the House superintendent said they haven't studied the additional cost but believed it was negligible.

On Thursday, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington asked the congressional ethics office to investigate the couch-sleepers. It questioned whether they were breaking tax laws "by failing to report lodging as a taxable fringe benefit."

Veterans of office living say that, in time, the freshmen will discover other problems.

"It's lonely. You're isolated. And it's in some ways, it's sort of pathetic," said former representative Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Md.), who did it for 18 years. He saw colleagues become narrow-minded, paranoid, after being cooped up with their work around the clock.

Another danger: fire alarms. Once, Gilchrest said, Capitol Police came through the corridors, urging all the sleepers, "Don't get dressed! Just get out, get out!"

He disobeyed, dressing himself before evacuating.

"A couple of congressmen went out in their underwear," he said. They were stuck outside, pantsless, while Gilchrest went to breakfast.

"You know, that's pathetic," Gilchrest said.

Leslie Paige of the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste said that the most difficult task for these freshmen is still ahead. They have now forced their party leaders to look for a massive $100 billion in cuts from the federal budget this year.

Those cuts could require a bunch of Washington's rookies to master the capital's hardest task: making constituents like you, even as you cut their government services.

"But we haven't gotten to that point yet," Paige said. For now, their self-sacrifice is "kind of a noble gesture. It's kind of nice to see noble gestures once in a while."

The gestures are so new that congressmen are just starting to see the downsides. Most of the freshmen bunking in their offices say they don't feel lonely at night: They enjoy the peace.

But sometimes, in the Longworth building, freshman Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) gets late-night texts on his cellphone. The message, from another congressman, is the same one children whisper to each other at slumber parties.

"Hey," it says. "You still up?"

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