Lawmakers' Practice To Sleep In Their Offices Raises Concerns Amid The Pandemic

May 11, 2020
Originally published on May 11, 2020 8:27 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The House of Representatives may be called back as soon as the end of this week to vote on another relief package. But with mounting cases of coronavirus among workers and staffers in the Capitol, there's an effort to ban lawmakers from sleeping in their offices. NPR's Barbara Sprunt reports.

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: For some members of Congress, an office is just, well, an office. But for others, it doubles as their apartment while they live and work in D.C.

JACKIE SPEIER: You know, they sleep on their couches. They get up in the morning. They sneak downstairs at the members' gym and shower, you know, change their clothes and come back up for work.

CHANG: California Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Speier has said for years that members shouldn't sleep in their offices. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle estimate about 100 members, mostly Republicans, bunk in their offices to save money. The last speaker, Paul Ryan, was one of them. North Carolina Republican Ted Budd does it now.

TED BUDD: I skipped all of the normal ramp-up time of starting up a new place to live and just went right to work.

SPRUNT: Speier says it's an inappropriate use of taxpayer funds and can make staffers feel uncomfortable.

SPEIER: Imagine if you said to a constituent coming into your office, welcome, come into my bedroom. I don't know if I'd want to sit on anyone's couch.

SPRUNT: Some Democrats have argued to end the practice before but are pushing again now out of a public health concern because of the coronavirus. Over 40 Capitol construction workers and police officers have tested positive for the virus. Speier wrote in a letter to the office overseeing the operations of the Capitol and the Capitol attending physician that there should be a permanent ban on this practice.

SPEIER: The potential risk to others is obviously greater.

SPRUNT: Budd, who was elected in 2016, says efforts to curb this practice are unnecessary.

BUDD: We're all adults here. We know how to wash our hands. We know how to have social distancing. We know how to be sanitary. And we all do that. And I just think this has nothing to do with COVID-19. But they're certainly not going to let an opportunity like this or a crisis go to waste.

SPRUNT: Budd says he thinks the underlying agenda among Democrats is to get a housing allowance in place for members. But Mississippi Democrat Bennie Thompson disagrees.

BENNIE THOMPSON: I have been a member for 27 years, and I have paid rent every day that I have been there. So why would I push a housing allowance when I'm already paying?

SPRUNT: Thompson says it's time for Congress to have a frank discussion about this practice.

THOMPSON: Get out of your pajamas. Put your clothes on and go stay where a majority of the members of Congress stay - in an apartment or home or wherever.

SPRUNT: The attending physician didn't include anything on this issue in guidelines to members on returning to the Capitol. Speier set a deadline for Capitol operations to respond to her letter by the end of the week.

Barbara Sprunt, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.