WASHINGTON >> Hansen Clarke, a newly elected Democrat from Michigan, is coming to Washington with a “warrior’s mentality” to help stave off unemployment and foreclosures in metro Detroit. He plans to hole up in his “bunker” — his Longworth House office, where he will work (“practically around the clock”), eat (“healthy options” like microwaved sweet potatoes) and sleep (most likely on a mattress and sleeping bag combination).
“Washington is not going to be a home for me — I’m only there to work,” Clarke said. “I need to be able to work up to 20 hours a day and still get some decent sleep, and if I sleep in my office I’ll be able to do that.”
Clarke is one of as many as a dozen freshman House members who plan to bunk in their offices when Congress is in session. Although no one has hard numbers, anecdotal evidence suggests that at least 40 to 50 House members, both new and old, will be sleeping at work.
For many of them, joining the unofficial Couch Caucus is a practical way to save money and a symbolic gesture that they are both fiscally conservative and serious about changing how business is done in Washington.
“It just seemed like sleeping in my office, just focusing totally on my work when I’m here, made the most sense,” said Joe Walsh, Republican of Illinois. “I don’t want to think about where I’m living, I don’t want to think about what I’m eating; I want to get in, do my work and then get home and talk to the people who sent me here.”
For Todd Rokita, Republican of Indiana, and James Lankford, Republican of Oklahoma, the choice came down to money.
Rokita simply found it unpalatable to pay $2,000 for the 600-square-foot basement apartment that his wife begged him to at least consider.
“I am much too fiscally conservative, not only with the people’s money but with my own, to pay that much money,” Rokita said.
The group of office sleepers, which stretches across party lines, is a male-heavy crowd. No one knew of any women who had gone public with plans to sleep in their offices, although Kristi Noem, a Republican from South Dakota, toyed with the idea before ultimately renting a small basement apartment near the Capitol.
Noem is “not afraid of roughing it,” she wrote in an e-mail message.
“I’ve gone on weeklong elk hunting trips with my brothers, after all, but sleeping on a couch four nights a week for the next two years is a little much,” she said. “The rent is more than I’d like to pay, but getting a good night’s sleep will hopefully mean I’m more productive in the work for my constituents for the few days I am in Washington each week.”
There are logistical hurdles to consider. Every new member’s office comes equipped with basic furniture and a couch, but the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer said it does not provide futons, sleeper-sofas or air mattresses. Every office also includes a bathroom and sink, but when it comes to showers, members will find themselves heading to the members’ gym in the Rayburn House Office Building.
“A robe?” asked Walsh, who admitted he is “not a real solid details guy” and had not yet puzzled out all the specifics of his living situation. “I’m a big sweats guy, so I imagine I’ll sneak down in my sweats and a T-shirt, because I’m going to want to work out.”
Sleeping in Capitol Hill offices, which is not a new practice, became especially popular when Dick Armey decided to bunk near his desk, said Kirsten Fedewa, who worked on the Hill as a press secretary in the 1990s.
“When members realized he was doing it, he made it really in vogue,” Fedewa said. “It was kind of like, wow, the icon is doing it, it makes a lot of sense.”
These makeshift sleeping arrangements do provoke some grumbling. Skeptics argue that the arrangements do not actually save the taxpayers money — if anything, they say, members should have to pay Congress a small stipend for the added resources they use at night. They also complain that the practice can feel like a macho boys club, that it promotes an anti-Washington sentiment that hurts bipartisanship and that, frankly, it just seems weird.
New members considering the option are not lacking in role models.
John Sullivan, Republican of Oklahoma, moved into his office when first elected in 2002, switched to a town house, and then changed back to sleeping at work four years ago. (In 2008, he even ran a campaign ad that showed him blowing up an air mattress as he explained: “I don’t even spend money on an apartment in D.C. Just keep an inflatable bed in my office closet. I watch your pennies, and I watch mine.”).
Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah who came to Congress in 2008 carrying a cot wrapped in duct tape under his arm, said he had been asked for advice by a dozen or so new representatives.
“As the freshmen come in, in particular the spouses, they want to see the cot, they want to see how you get back and forth to the gym,” he said. “The profile is usually the married ones. They’ve got a young family at home, trying to save some money, they don’t come to Congress as millionaires.”
The few single folks, he said, prefer “a bachelor pad.”
Chaffetz is happy to share his own time-tested tips — tape a “Member Resting: Do Not Disturb” sign on the door before turning in, keep a ready stash of Pop-Tarts and popcorn for late-night hunger and avoid the vending machine cheeseburger at all cost. Oh, and beware of the mice.
“You need some d-Con and mousetraps,” he said, cheerfully. “We’ve got a mouse problem up here.”