On Deficit and Housing, Congress Engages in Pointless Symbolism

The minitrend of new members of Congress sleeping in the office doesn't save taxpayers money.

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The minitrend of new members of Congress sleeping in their offices would be amusing if it weren’t such a sad metaphor for the approach to reining in the deficit and debt.

Bunking in the office isn’t new; lawmakers have done it in the past, particularly when the House schedule only required members to be in town from Tuesday nights until Thursday at noonish. What’s new is that some of the freshmen members see this practice as a statement, a sign that they are willing to sacrifice for the cause of frugality. It’s not, any more than getting rid of earmarks will do anything substantive to reduce the budget deficit.

Sleeping in the office doesn’t save the taxpayer money, since the government doesn’t pay for congressmen’s quarters in D.C. (this is why you see four grown men packing into a rental house like it’s a dormitory). Congressmen get a small tax deduction for the second residence, but it doesn’t come close to paying for the high cost of sleeping in the nation’s capital. Bunking in the office may actually cost taxpayers something (as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington worries, according to a nicely-written Washington Post piece), but the price for extra showers or electricity is likely negligible at best. The question is, what do these lawmakers think they are accomplishing for their constituents? Don’t they think the folks back home want their congressmen to be rested and on their collective game? Waking up with a bad back doesn’t put the lawmakers in closer touch with the struggles of everyday Americans. It just adds another distraction to an already difficult and demanding job. [Take the U.S. News poll: Does Obama's budget strike the right balance?]

The congressmen who have chosen to refuse their good government healthcare do deserve some credit; while it’s unlikely any of them will actually be uninsured, at least they have a sense of what it’s like to have to pay the high cost of COBRA or individual insurance premiums. And it’s not just those who oppose the healthcare law who are eschewing the government plan: Sen. Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, refused government coverage for 18 years to protest the lack of a program to provide universal care. He signed on last month.

And then there’s Reps. Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Jo Ann Emerson, Republican of Missouri, who cochair the House Hunger Caucus and wanted to really understand what it was like to live on food stamps. So the two, joined by Democratic colleagues Tim Ryan of Ohio and Janice Schakowsky of Illinois (and McGovern’s wife, Lisa), spent a week in 2007 subsisting on the $21 worth of food allocated for someone on food stamps. It was difficult, and it gave the lawmakers a better understanding of what it was like to be hungry in wealthy America. Those lawmakers should be commended.

Making a big show of sleeping in the office is like trimming a few discretionary federal programs or banning earmarks: It doesn’t really get at the core issue. President Obama’s budget does not propose entitlement reforms, which are essential to controlling the deficit and debt in the long term. In the administration’s defense, such a move likely would have done nothing more than give the GOP ammunition in the 2012 campaign to scare seniors. If the GOP is sincere about cutting entitlements, we’ll see it in their budget proposal. A dialogue certainly needs to be opened on the matter, and it was, with the recommendations of the bipartisan task force on reducing the deficit. Let’s hope Congress and the White House use those recommendations as a base for actual reform. And they’ll do better at it if they get a decent night’s sleep.

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