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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has a point about housing for Congress

The way we pay for our leaders to live in D.C. is inherently political

“I have three months without a salary before I’m a member of Congress,” tweeted Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “So, how do I get an apartment?”

If you’ve spent any time scrolling through social media lately, you may have noticed a bit of consternation over a certain congresswoman-elect’s housing situation.

Earlier this month, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the forthcoming freshman representative from the Bronx, tweeted about her inability to afford housing in D.C. until her congressional salary kicks in—“I have three months without a salary before I’m a member of Congress. So, how do I get an apartment?”

Social media began churning out responses of outrage, sympathy, disbelief, genuine offers of help, and unfounded accusations.

Ocasio-Cortez was grandstanding. She was eliciting sympathy. She was lying. She was looking for handouts. Any and every idea has likely been floated as to why the youngest-ever member of Congress, who until very recently was working behind the bar at a small taqueria near Union Square, was discussing why she couldn’t immediately rent a place near her new job. (According to Zillow, the median rent in Washington, D.C., is $2,700.)

If conversation was her goal, mission accomplished.

Housing is political, especially during a critical affordable housing shortage. With the increasing cost of life in Washington, and skyrocketing cost of a successful campaign—this year was the most expensive election on record—there are important questions to be asked about how and where politicians live. Does the cost of being a politician deter some of lesser means from pursuing public service?

By 2012, Congress was “majority millionaire,” and financial figures from the current Congress show that the typical House member is 12 times richer than the average American. Perhaps it’s a great time to talk about attracting and supporting a broader pool of representatives.

Ocasio-Cortez is far from the only politician from modest means who has struggled to find a new home after prevailing on Election Day.

In 2014, Arizona democrat Rep. Ruben Gallego, then 34, crashed on a friend’s air mattress during his first day in D.C., then spent the next day working out of a Dunkin’ Donuts. Wisconsin Rep. Sean Duffy tweeted to Ocasio-Cortez that he was out of work for eight months before coming to Congress, so he “understand(s) the struggle.”

Being a member of Congress comes with a grueling schedule. Between working during the week, returning to their districts on the weekend, and cramming in as much fundraising as possible, it’s difficult to establish roots in D.C. It’s becoming even harder with the rising cost of D.C. real estate.

Even with a $174,000 annual salary and generous, taxpayer-funded benefits, it can be hard to juggle housing expenses, especially when representatives must also maintain a home in their districts.

House Leader Paul Ryan’s office, and home, in D.C.
Corbis via Getty Images

Some members of Congress simply skip the trouble of finding a place in D.C. and sleep in their Capitol Hill offices. Dubbed the “couch caucus,” the group reportedly numbers between 40 and 75 members, including outgoing House speaker Rep. Paul Ryan. The practice was supposedly pioneered in the ’80s by House majority leader Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, who slept in his office until then-speaker Rep. Jim Wright forbade him from doing it, saying it was demeaning to the institution.

”If we go to the point where you have to rent or have to buy [in D.C.], then only millionaires would be members of Congress,” said former Staten Island Rep. Dan Donovan, a couch caucus member. “I don’t think that was the intent of our founding fathers.”

Sleeping in your office saves a representative money—estimated to be 10 percent of their salary—and lets them claim to be both frugal and focused, spending as little time as possible navigating the swamp of D.C. and as much time as possible working for constituents. No surprise, then, that the majority of the couch caucus comes from the Republican party, especially Tea Party members who see this living arrangement as a symbol of their fiscal restraint and anti-Washington ethos. It’s perhaps the best-funded public housing in the nation.

In 2011, government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington asked the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate whether the couch caucus violates House rules and federal tax law, claiming they were using official resources for something other than official business. The issue went nowhere then, but similar complaints were resurrected by the Congressional Black Caucus earlier this year, which claimed it was an abuse of taxpayer funds.

A letter sent to the Ethics Committee stated that “members who sleep overnight in their offices receive free lodging, free cable, free security, free cleaning services, and utilize other utilities free of charge in direct violation of the ethics rules which prohibit official resources from being used for personal purposes.”

Mrs. Prescott Bush, wife of the GOP senator from Connecticut; Mrs. Eisenhower; Mrs. Richard M. Nixon, wife of the vice president; and Mrs. Stuart Symington, wife of the Democratic senator from Missouri, chat at a Senate luncheon given in the first lady’s honor by the Senate Wives Club.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

When politicians really made D.C. home

In today’s hyper-partisan political climate, D.C. veterans get nostalgic about a past era of bipartisanship. While visions of a more civil past may be selective memory, some members of Congress feel that when it was more affordable to live in D.C., there was more opportunity to form bonds across the aisle.

If you live across the street, or attend the same house of worship, or have kids in the same school as your political opponent, the theory goes, “it’s impossible to go up on the floor of the Senate or in the media and blast him the next day,” according to Trent Lott, a former Senate leader from Mississippi.

It had long been tradition for political families to decamp to Washington, D.C., due in large part to the challenges of interstate travel. Even as recently as the ’50s, political spouses would move to D.C. with the kids; the Senate Wives’ Club of that era would meet every Tuesday at 10 a.m. to volunteer for the Red Cross.

When Marian Javits, wife of then-New York Sen. Jacob Javits, decided to stay home and raise her kids in Manhattan after he won the 1956 election, the Javitses were criticized by their peers.

Many point to the Republican ascension in 1994 as the turning point. Rep. Newt Gingrich, then the House speaker, espoused an anti-Washington, family values platform. He made the distinction between D.C. insiders and outsiders and gave those who stayed away cover to keep out of the Beltway.

This political shift happened as a number of trends coalesced: more spouses had careers back home, campaigning meant participating in perpetual fundraisers, and long-distance commuting became the norm. In response, travel budgets increased, Gingrich shrunk the Congressional workweek from five to three days, and fewer elected officials moved their families to D.C. While Gingrich’s success in making Congress clean up the swamp is debatable, he definitely helped empty it out.

Senatorial frat houses and congressional dorms

For many Congressional leaders, making it in today’s D.C. means finding roommates, including adopting living situations more akin to broke college students. For decades, Sen. Chuck Schumer and other senators, including Dick Durbin and George Miller, used to live in what was nicknamed “Alpha House,” described by CNN in 2013 as a “rundown frat house” with broken blinds, sheets for curtains, and a “pile of underwear in the living room.”

But maybe the U.S. should take the “Alpha House” concept one step further by building an actual dorm (with fewer piles of underwear, of course).

With booming development in areas like the Wharf and the arrival of Amazon in nearby Arlington, Virginia, D.C. real estate prices seems unlikely to decrease anytime soon. And the need to raise more and more money, and the political capital that comes from not being associated with the D.C. swamp, offers more incentive for politicians to make any stay in the capital a quick one.

Can we, and should we, change this status quo, where our elected leaders struggle to pay for multiple residences, and never get to know each other as neighbors?

Other countries, such as the United Kingdom and France, provide legislators with housing stipends, while Sweden and India actually have provided dorm-like accommodations to some elected officials.

In 2017, before he left Congress, then-House oversight chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz told the Hill that members should receive a housing allowance, so it’s easier to have a decent quality of life in Washington.

“Washington, D.C., is one of the most expensive places in the world, and I flat-out cannot afford a mortgage in Utah, kids in college and a second place here in Washington, D.C.,” Chaffetz told the Hill. “I think a $2,500 housing allowance would be appropriate and a real help to have at least a decent quality of life in Washington if you’re going to expect people to spend hundreds of nights a year here.”

Perhaps discussions of raising Congressional pay to cover increased housing costs is a non-starter, especially with the dismal public approval ratings for Congress.

But if we want a more equitable government, we should find a way to get a more financially diverse group of leaders elected. If more of them understood the true challenges of finding full-time family housing in an expensive city like D.C., perhaps they’d do more to tackle the nation’s urgent affordable housing crisis.