Sleeping on the Job: Lawmakers Question Ethics of Capitol Hill Quirk

Congressional Black Caucus chairman Cedric Richmond in his congressional office. (Public domain photo provided by the House of Representatives.)

Recent Capitol events have given new meaning to the phrase, “sleeping on the job,” and now more than two dozen Congressional Black Caucus members have called for an ethics investigation into the practice of lawmakers sleeping in their office overnight.

They argue that this habit is an abuse of taxpayer funds and a growing, worrying trend.

In their letter to Ethics Committee Chairwoman Susan Brooks, R-Ind., the caucus, or CBC, specifically asked about the “legality and propriety” of the practice.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said “There’s something unsanitary about bringing people to your office who are talking about public policy where you spend the night, and that’s unhealthy, unsanitary, and some people would say it’s almost nasty,”

Office sleeping is not a new trend. In 2015, NPR reported that Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., was one of “dozens” of lawmakers living out of their offices. Others include  the Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., who claimed, “It’s not something I’m thrilled about, it’s just circumstances.”

At the time, NPR reported that at least 40 House members slept in their offices, and that the majority were Republican men. Many, like Ryan, cite the practice as a way of saving time and money.

In 2018, however, the exercise has come under heavy scrutiny. The CBC letter to the Ethics Committee argues that sleeping in the Capitol building breaches federal law and House rules, which prohibits official resources being used for personal purposes.

The original requested response date for the letter was January 5 but as of March there has been no response from the Republican-led committee. The Hill reports that CBC members are preparing another letter, which would be the third official request for more attention to be given to the issue.

According to The Hill, some CBC members took issue with Republicans living for free in a government building, while advocating cuts to welfare programs.

More seriously, the practice of office sleeping has also brought about sexual harassment concerns. According to Fox News, multiple female aides working for members of both parties have reached out and expressed concern over having to, essentially, work in the bedrooms of their bosses, calling it “awkward,” and “uncomfortable.”

Addressing these concerns, Ryan said: “We sleep in our offices because we work until midnight and get up early. We don’t see our staffs. I never see my staff when I return.” It should be noted that no Capitol sexual harassment allegation has been linked to the practice of office sleeping.

Moreover, former Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., in an interview with BuzzFeed News, defended the practice by calling it a method for “camaraderie building.”

However, this situation also creates unique issues for lawmakers in the case of a government shutdown, during which several Capitol building services would no longer be functioning. This included the main cafeteria and certain security checkpoints.

As far as possible solutions go, the CBC letter recommended that lawmakers who sleep in their offices should be charged “the fair market value of a Capitol Hill apartment.” As of right now, an average 2-bedroom Capitol Hill apartment can easily go between $2,000-$3,000 a month, a sizeable portion of a lawmaker’s $174,000 a year salary.

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