When the alarm clock shrieks in the morning, Rep. Richard Armey doesn't have to worry about getting to work on time. He is at work. The first-term Texas congressman lives in his Capitol Hill office. And so does Rep. Bob Whittaker (R-Kan.).
That is, Whittaker sleeps in his office; Armey tried sleeping in his, and then moved to the Rayburn House Office Building gym downstairs instead.
"It was so noisy I couldn't sleep with that cleaning going on," Armey says. He loves to talk about his office-home in Cannon House Office Building Room 514 and is returning a reporter's call about this sensitive issue from an airport in Denver. "All those office cleaning carts going back and forth in the hall. It seems like there's always someone who always wants to talk to someone at the other end of the hall instead of walking over to them."
Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) suggested the gymnastic alternative, Armey says. "When he gets in off that California red-eye he sleeps down there, he told me."
The gym is a sleeper's heaven, Armey reports. "Down there you hear the ventilator, but that's a steady little hum. . . . It's a soothing nice low steady noise. You don't have those jerks and loud crashes you get on fifth-floor Cannon . . . They have about 12 rooms -- each one's about 7 feet long and 5 feet wide, with a bed and chair. It's a pretty comfortable bed, nothing lavish. Each room is well ventilated." One cannot reserve a room permanently, says Armey, who tries to grab a particular "favorite" room when he gets down there "because it's got a socket to plug in my alarm clock."
Whittaker's press secretary, Roger Noriega, says the congressman spends his nights on a couch in the office. "It's a case of living over the store for him," Noriega says.
Whittaker prefers not to talk about his round-the-clock existence, Noriega says. "He's up doing the paperwork before anyone gets here in the morning."
Whittaker does not want to talk about the subject (old news in Kansas), Noriega says, because "he's got three kids in school, and this exposes them to teasing in one way or another . . . from prepubescent peers."
Crashing overnight in the office is nothing new in the manic congressional life style of burgeoning issues and late-night floor votes. But having a permanent home address there is somewhat less frequent. Former Pennsylvanian congressman Eugene V. Atkinson took up temporary residence in his office in 1979. Rep. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.) checked into the Hotel Longworth between 1980 and 1981, he says, because his apartment was converted into a condominium and, in view of his weekend commutes to see his children in his home state, it didn't seem worth renting a place in the District. Former South Carolina congressman Ken Holland (Jeffords' office predecessor, it turns out) also was a 24-hour resident.
"It wasn't bad," Jeffords says of the old days. "I made friends with the cleaning ladies. So they knew that when my door was shut they didn't bug me and they'd do things quietly. The office printer would be going all night and I used to go to sleep by that. When the ribbon ran out, I'd get out of bed and replace it once a night.
"The problem," Jeffords says, "is you never get away from it. As long as you've got a pile of stuff on the desk, it kinda haunts you. You work 12 hours a day . . . After a little while the walls begin to close in on you."
Ascetic considerations -- as well as a $3,000 deduction available to congressmen for living expenses -- aside, there is no question that such frugal habits play well in Peoria. Whittaker, who owns a family home in Augusta, Kan., as well as rental properties there, until earlier this year owned two houses in Arlington before he decided to scrimp on his Washington rent. Armey stresses the factor of saving time rather than money, however: "I didn't like living in the former Crystal City apartment because it wasted my time. There's not a great deal of joy riding the Metro at 11 at night when you could be in the gym, watching the news and doing something for yourself physically."
In Kansas, press reports of Whittaker's bureacratic snooze-hole have been "generally positive," Noriega says. "The comments we're getting back are usually: 'Here's someone who isn't throwing money around.' "
As for the loneliness factor, both Armey and Whittaker stay busy during the week and generally commute home on the weekends. "Any time I'm away from my wife, it's a lonely existence," says Armey, whose wife and five children are back home in Denton, Tex. Armey generally gets to "bed" around 11, works out on the weight machines and "turns in around midnight." He's up about 6 a.m. to work once again on the weight equipment before breakfast, which is just a connecting corridor away in the Longworth House Office Building cafeteria. Amey says he has time-to-time neighbors in the gym sleeping quarters whom he has never met. "I'm not sure who they are, but by the time I get down there, they're in bed and their doors are closed."
Noriega says that while office-dwelling gives Whittaker time to deal with the issues, there is the predictable reaction from constituents, colleagues and friends. "There is the inevitable teasing when they come to visit," Noriega says. "They say, 'Is this the famous couch?' "
Neither congressman has immediate plans to change his living situation. For Armey, it will continue "as long as I continue to live in Texas and commute to Washington. . . . It's nice to have that time in the evening."