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At This 'Animal House,' the Party Is Democratic

WASHINGTON — By day, veteran California Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) advises party leaders on long-range strategy. He fights for increased school aid on the House Education and the Workforce committees. And, as befits one of the most senior members of Congress, he grapples with a host of other weighty issues.

By night, Miller has another job. He presides over a nocturnal domain known as "the animal house."

For more than 20 years, Miller has operated what amounts to a boarding house for fellow lawmakers. And if Miller is not quite the real-life equivalent of "Animal House" star John Belushi's character, his establishment bears more than a passing resemblance to its bacchanalian namesake.

Miller's tenants tend to forget that empty beer cans go in the trash, not the living room. There are crickets in the closets and rats in the walls. The lawn hasn't seen a mower in years. The television set is so old, a would-be burglar once passed it over.

What prompted Miller to get into the boarding house business was a problem that faces many members of Congress. Unless they have large personal fortunes, they are hard-pressed to maintain houses both in Washington and back home on their salaries — now $162,100 a year.

That means many members need a cheap place to crash during the week.

Enter George Miller, to the sound of opportunity knocking.

The 60-year-old Miller came to Congress 30 years ago. He and his wife, Cynthia, his high school sweetheart, bought a 15-foot-wide, two-story painted brick building with two bedrooms and two bathrooms.

Five years later, the youngest of the Millers' two children, Steve, wanted to return to California for school, so Cynthia took the children home and the congressman started commuting on weekends. (The Millers have been married 41 years, and Miller deadpans that the secret of a good marriage is being "bicoastal.")

With his family in Martinez, Miller had room to spare in the Washington town house, not to mention a burdensome mortgage. Soon afterward, then-Rep. Marty Russo (D-Ill.) came looking for temporary shelter during a snowstorm. He never left. Miller decided to collect rent and open up spaces for two more colleagues.

Miller likes to joke that his house is "a finishing school for senators." The revolving cast has included two House members who went on to the Senate: Richard Durbin of Illinois and Charles Schumer of New York. Miller also notes that Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) was a neighbor during her House career.

"Boxer's in the auxiliary," Miller said. "She used to bring over healthy food and try to get us to go jogging."

Boxer was swimming upstream.

Leon Panetta, the former Democratic congressman from Monterey who lived with Miller until he left for the Clinton administration, remembers there was usually so little food in the house, he had to protect breakfast cereal from marauding roommates — especially Schumer.

"My son was interning at the State Department one year and he stayed with us," said Panetta. "The poor kid used to buy cereal to have in the house because we didn't have much food. Schumer used to eat his cereal. If there was any food around, Schumer would eat it."

Panetta, on the other hand, was so neat that he made his bed every day — with hospital corners.

That was not the norm at Hotel Miller.

Panetta said Russo used to complain that another tenant who got to the bathroom before him every morning would leave a ring around the tub.

Durbin, who slept downstairs during his House years, was known to whip out a golf club if the rats got too bold.

These days, Durbin and Miller have bedrooms upstairs, Schumer and Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) have beds in the living room.

"It's not as exotic as people think," Miller said of the living arrangement. "Sometimes we talk real business and a lot of times it's just politics and strategy. And sometimes it's just watching 'Law & Order.' "

When they do watch the NBC drama series, Miller said, Schumer often does not understand the plot.

"He has to keep asking you, 'Who is that person? Why did he do that? Why is she saying that?' I'm like, 'Shut up! We'll send you the tape.' "

The house has few rules, but perhaps the strictest is: No Republicans.

"The Constitution says you have to vote with them, it does not say you have to eat or live with them," said Miller, an unwavering liberal who earns a 100% approval rating from Americans for Democratic Action, one of Washington's oldest liberal organizations.

Born in Richmond, Calif., on May 17, 1945, the only boy among four children, Miller was a baby when his father was first elected to the Legislature.

Miller remembers skipping school to join his father on legislative rounds, where he met the likes of Gov. Pat Brown. Miller had just started law school when his 54-year-old father suffered a fatal heart attack in 1969. Miller decided to run for the vacant state Senate seat. He won the primary but lost the general election.

Miller returned to law school and went on to a succession of jobs in state government. And in 1974, when an opportunity to run for Congress arose, he ran and won. Miller now ranks 12th in seniority in the House, tied with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and James Oberstar (D-Minn.).

They are the last of the so-called Watergate class of Democrats elected in the wake of the Nixon White House scandals.

"I love to get up in the morning and go to work," Miller said. "I love to find a problem and see if I can work it out. Some might say I've got it all wrong, [but] I believe government can be a very positive force."

As much as he enjoys battling the GOP, he also delights in persuading Republicans to cosponsor legislation. Earlier this year, he got Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.) to join him in proposing a bill to provide $17 billion in scholarship funds without taxpayer expense. But the House leadership keeps blocking his efforts.

Still, he said, "I don't think you can just walk off the field of play."

Besides, what would become of George Miller's nocturnal brood if he left?

"Living by yourself is kind of dreary," said Miller, recalling that the late House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill (D-Mass.), who roomed with a colleague, once told him to get a group house together. "The house is a little bit of a sanctuary. It's our hole in the wall."

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A lawmaker's life

•  Former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta — who roomed in Miller's house when he was in Congress — said the Millers had a piano downstairs that they moved out so Panetta could move a bed in. "In those days they gave [storage] trunks to members of Congress," he said. "They don't do that anymore."

•  Bathroom time is not a problem at the group house, said Miller, because his roommates leave early for the gym. "There's no line, no sign-up," said Miller, who said his own early morning trek is for "a good cup of coffee. I go to the gym later."

•  Miller doubts his children will follow him into politics. His oldest, George, lost one race for an Assembly seat and is doing so well in business that the congressman doubts he'll try again. And his youngest, Steve, "loves politics but would never run for office," in part because people would taunt the child about the father's votes. Maybe the grandkids? "They'd be pistols," said the congressman.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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