WASHINGTON – Rep. Ted Budd frequently receives compliments on the large mahogany cabinet in his office that shelves some of his daughter’s artwork.
While he thanks them, the North Carolina Republican doesn’t let visitors in on a secret: the cabinet also serves as his bed each night he’s in Washington, D.C.
The hidden Murphy bed — complete with a Tempur-Pedic mattress — is just one way dozens of lawmakers on Capitol Hill have made their offices a second home, sleeping on couches, makeshift mattresses or fold-out beds at night and getting ready for work before their staffs arrive the next morning. An estimated 100 lawmakers sleep in their offices, including the House’s top Republican — Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
“I wanted my focus to be back here in North Carolina, where I represent the 13th district,” Budd said in an interview, explaining his decision to sleep in his office while in D.C. “I didn’t want it to be a Washington lifestyle.”
But the coronavirus has reignited a years-old fight to stop what’s become known as the “couch caucus,” with some lawmakers arguing that their colleagues sleeping in their offices is not only improper, it also increases the chances of spreading COVID-19 to colleagues and staff at the U.S. Capitol.
Rep. Jackie Speier has targeted the practice, authoring a letter to Congress’ attending physician and the Architect of the Capitol, the agency tasked with maintaining and operating the building, asking that it be banned in light of the pandemic. The California Democrat posted a video to her social media accounts to protest the practice.
“So this is the dirty little secret,” says Speier, who in the video is dressed in pajamas next to a couch topped with a bed sheetsheet. “At the end of the day, when most members go back to their apartments or residences, there are upwards of 100 members of the House of Representatives who put on their PJs — at least I hope they do — and go to bed here in their offices.”
Speier, in an interview, said members sleeping in their offices is “inappropriate on so many levels,” noting varied concerns about spreading germs in the age of the coronavirus, which has infected a handful of members of Congress, and the potential for putting staff members in an uncomfortable position.
Both the Architect of the Capitol and Congress’ physician declined to weigh in on the issue when they responded to Speier’s concerns, but highlighted safety efforts at the Capitol.
Over the years, Speier and other Democrats have attempted to halt the practice. In 2018, several Democrats put forward an unsuccessful measure to stop it, but it failed to gain steam in the then-Republican controlled House. Among the lawmakers who slept in their offices at the time: then-Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who was behind the legislation in 2018, said he agrees with Speier about the heightened risks to lawmakers and staff.
“I would hope that Congress takes a harder look at it and says, ‘You know, it’s one thing skirting the ethics rules, but it’s really something else when you put lives at risk,'” he told NPR, noting that the Washington area has become a hot spot for the disease.
Speier says she doesn’t believe that a bill should be necessary, explaining the House should change the rules and arguing public sentiment is on her side. She acknowledged the House was focused on getting help to those impacted by the coronavirus but she “saw an opportunity to maybe, you know, move the ball on this.”
Over the years, members of Congress have offered varying explanations for why they choose to live in their offices when they’re in Washington. Some, like Budd, say it’s a matter of simply wanting to focus on their job, others point to the high cost of rent in the nation’s capital, where members don’t spend the majority of their time.
Former Rep. Dan Donovan, R-N.Y., explained to the New York Post in 2017 that “Washington is too expensive.”
“If we go to the point where you have to rent or have to buy [in DC], then only millionaires would be members of Congress,” explained the former member of the House, who slept in a small area of his office in a cot.
Members of the House make $174,000 annually, a salary that hasn’t been raised in more than a decade. They don’t get allowances for rent or additional benefits to help them pay for the added costs of holding a residence both in their home state and in D.C. But members of both parties hold residences in the nation’s capital, with some opting to move their families to the city and others choosing to live with fellow lawmakers in a bid to cut down on living expenses.
Budd says what makes sleeping in his office work is the half bathroom he says is included in each member’s office and the gym in the Rayburn House Office Building, which includes showers for members.
He credits the gym, which is closed due to the coronavirus, and all his time spent on Capitol Hill to helping better relationships across the aisle in a political moment known for its divisions.
“It’s been great because we’re in the gym, exercising together,” he explained. “We’ve met a lot of people that we otherwise wouldn’t have met. So I think it’s actually healthy for bipartisan relationships.”
Budd cast aside Democratic concerns about the risks associated with him and other sleeping in their offices, explaining that most members have not been in D.C. much over the last few months due to a prolonged recess over the virus. He dismissed the calls to halt the process and argued that Democrats were looking for a reason to take on the issue again.
“I mean, really, who cares? I think it’s almost humorous that the democrats keep bringing it up,” he said, adding that those he represents “appreciate” that he sleeps in his office.
While lawmakers in both parties have been known to sleep in their offices, the practice has been more readily done by Republicans. Some members have used the practice as part of their pitch to voters on fiscal responsibility, though Democrats have pointed out these lawmakers are not saving taxpayer money by sleeping in their offices. Rather, they are being provided with utilities and lodging at no expense.
“You’re not protecting the taxpayers, arguably, you’re costing the taxpayers because you’re using services that are for personal use when they’re for professional purposes,” Speier argued. “These are homeless people by choice.”