When Rep. Ben Butler of Massachusetts came to Washington, serving in Congress wasn't quite the glamorous experience that it's cracked up to be now.
The Capitol was isolated from the center of Washington, reachable only by a long ride over muddy streets. Most lawmakers lived in boarding houses, few even equipped with baths. And there was virtually no convenient place on Capitol Hill to eat. "I do not see how I can stay here," Butler wrote his wife plaintively.
That was in 1867. Since then, Congress has amassed a broad array of benefits and perquisites for senators and House members and their staffs that would make Butler less likely to yearn for home, and, some would say, that would allow him to live in the nation's capital in relatively fine style.
If the Massachusetts congressman were alive today, he would be able to enjoy a private health club for $100 a year, have his car hand-washed for $3, eat subsidized lunches in the House restaurant, buy cut-rate gift merchandise at the House stationery store and--until just two months ago--he could have gotten half-price $5 haircuts at the House barbershop. He also would get free flowers for his office--and free medical care.
Perhaps even more conspicuous, as one of 100 senators and 435 representatives, Butler would be catered to as few are outside of Congress. Capitol police regularly clear a path through the crowds when lawmakers stride down the hall. Special Members Only elevators are reserved for their use. Guards hold subway cars for them. In essence, they're the kings of the Hill.
Congressional perks are back in the spotlight, as public resentment over lawmakers' checking account overdrafts at the House bank spills over to other congressional trappings. For the last few days, newspaper and television reports alike have been filled with political gurus and voters complaining that such perquisites have become excessive and demanding that they be curbed.
"They have so many perks already and they write their own rules themselves," said Margaret Caufield, a 63-year-old Phoenix retiree who is one of millions of Americans incensed over the issue. She termed the latest scandal over the House bank "just the straw that broke the camel's back."
Already, Congress is abuzz with proposals to fix the system.
Rep. Michael Bilirakis (R-Fla.) has proposed legislation that would require lawmakers to pay for medical services that now are provided free by the Capitol's Office of the Attending Physician.
Rep. William J. Hughes (D-N.J.), would severely limit international travel.
Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D-Fla.) has introduced legislation that would abolish the discounts lawmakers receive--on everything from haircuts to briefcases--and end Congress' self-exemption from equal employment laws and other regulations. Bennett argues it's the only way to blunt public criticism of the institution.
"Perks just get you in trouble," he says.
Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, a veteran Republican lawmaker, agrees. Noting that Americans have "a deep-seated antipathy" toward anything that smacks of special privileges for a few, Leach says lawmakers must act to change their image or risk bringing on the wrath of voters in November. "If Congress is seen as a privileged class, it is vulnerable," Leach declares.
To be sure, not everyone believes that Congress' perks are extraordinary. Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, argues that, by and large, lawmakers get fewer--and far less-generous--perks than middle managers at most large corporations. "It's one of the real myths," Mann asserts.
For example, most senior white-collar workers receive full health insurance and health club benefits, Mann notes, and many are eligible for discounts on meals in company cafeterias and on some gift items. Even the much-criticized franking privilege--which provides postage for official mail--isn't astonishing, he says. "When was the last time you paid for a letter you sent on company business?"
And in fairness, congressional staffers (and members of the press) are eligible for at least some of the same perks--from free parking and subsidized restaurants to special elevators. In some cases, the convenience is almost a necessity: Most parking spaces on Capitol Hill need to be reserved to accommodate lawmakers and staff members, for example. The issue is, should they be free?
Mann concedes that "the one thing that does smack of a perk" is the "general way members are looked after"--as if they were members of a special ruling class.
Norman Ornstein, a congressional aficionado at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, points out that the quality of many congressional perks is nothing to write home about--even if the postage is paid by the taxpayer. Haircuts in the congressional barbershops are anything but trendy, Ornstein notes, while Capitol food is decidedly mediocre.
"The only time the members want to eat in the House dining room is when there's a vote soon and it's convenient," he contends.
Stephen Hess, another Brookings scholar, points out that many of Congress' modern-day "perks" were instituted for good reason--to provide basic necessities in the days when there was no way for lawmakers to obtain them. Congress met only a few months each year; lawmakers didn't bring their families, and housing conditions often were substandard.
"They were far from being 'perks' back then," Hess contends.
Richard A. Baker, the Senate's historian, points out that the franking privilege dates to the birth of Congress, a hand-me-down from the practices of the British House of Commons. Travel allowances were designed to help lawmakers overcome the rigors of the day, when steamboats frequently exploded and railroad trains crashed.
Inadequate plumbing in congressional boarding houses accounted for other accouterments. When the Capitol was expanded in the late 1850s, lawmakers equipped each of the new wings with a set of marble bathtubs for members, and eventually staffed the facilities with barbers and attendants as well. One of the tubs is still in the Capitol--buried under junk in the electrical shop.
In the early 19th Century, there was only one eating place in the Capitol--a tiny room, known as the "Hole in the Wall," located just off the old Senate chamber. Later on, vendors sold fruit in the rotunda. When the House and Senate restaurants were opened, it was a matter of necessity, not of perks, scholars say.
The Office of the Attending Physician--traditionally a Navy doctor, who dispenses free medical advice and prescription pharmaceuticals to lawmakers--was established in 1928, when members were dying--many of them apparently from diseases related to Washington's stagnant air--at an appalling rate. There were almost 20 such deaths each year.
George W. Calver, the physician who held the position from the start, had two pieces of advice for newly elected lawmakers: First, "don't let yourself get off-balance, nervous and disturbed over things," and, second, "stay out of the Washington social whirl--go out at night twice a week at the most." Neither recommendation has been followed since.
Analysts say the problem with perks has come when lawmakers have abused their privileges. For example, while few begrudge government-provided postage for official business, some senators in the 19th Century used their franks to send their laundry back each week or ship china and bedding back home. One even mailed a horse--attaching his frank to its bridle.
In 1848, a young newspaper reporter named Horace Greeley used his two-year term in Congress to pore over travel vouchers to see which of his new colleagues had been overbilling the government. Among those he turned up (before deciding not to stand for reelection): A $600 overcharge by a Springfield, Ill., Republican named Abraham Lincoln.
And 42 years later, an enterprising journalist uncovered what was then indisputably the horsiest form of congressional perk--a taxpayer-financed stable. Although the lawmakers paid for the horses' feed, the operating costs--from grooms and stable-boys to bridles and blankets--were financed by the Treasury. "Senate Stables Boondoggle!" the headline blared.
Except for the check writing scandal at the House bank, abuses today seem less blatant. Still, critics point out that the franking privilege alone provides incumbents with a tremendous advantage over would-be challengers, who do not receive the same free postage for their broadsides, brochures and campaign letters.
Hess of the Brookings Institution, argues that what really propelled both the perks and the abuses was the advent of modern-day air-conditioning, which allowed lawmakers to continue meeting right through Washington's sweltering summers instead of adjourning in May or June, as had been the case for almost two centuries.
The longer sessions prompted lawmakers to seek more amenities, he says, and the perks--from free (and close-in) parking at Washington's two major airports to discounts at national parks--began to grow apace. The rest is history. "Most of what you're talking about is an invention of our generation," Hess says.
It may not seem so now, but some of Congress' perks have been cut back over the years. Travel hasn't been quite as unfettered in recent years as in the days before excesses by Rep. Otto Passman (D-La.) and others prompted a crackdown on the use of congressional travel vouchers. Nepotism isn't as rife. And senators don't get free shaving mugs anymore.
The franking privilege has been restricted--slightly--by 1973 legislation and other cutbacks, in the late 1970s and 1980s. And just a few weeks ago, possibly anticipating the furor over the House bank, the National Park Service announced it no longer would set aside recreation lodges at key parks and national seashore sites solely for the use of members of Congress.
There have been attempts over the years to eliminate--or at least reduce--other perks, but they have often met stiff opposition. In 1951, Sen. Paul Douglas (D-Ill.) introduced an amendment that would have forced the Senate barbershop to start charging for haircuts, but he was shouted down on the Senate floor. Senators now pay--at a discount rate.
To former Rep. Barber B. Conable (R-N.Y.), who left Congress in 1987 to become president of the World Bank (where the perks are even more generous), the easiest way for lawmakers to stop the criticism would be to let private enterprise take over such operations as the House restaurant or the House barbershop and charge everyone--the general public, congressmen and senators the same rate.
"Everyone is privatizing--why not Congress?" he says.
Mann agrees that Congress "is long overdue for making professional arrangements for some of these services, from banking to hair cutting," but doubts that it will make much real difference. "This is pretty small stuff," he says. "The consequences for the country are not great."
But some Congress watchers predict that, despite the current voter outrage, it will not be easy to prod lawmakers into cutting back on their perks.
Roger H. Davidson, a University of Maryland congressional scholar, predicts that legislators may well leave many of their existing perks intact, but will probably phase out some of those that seem most flagrant, to reduce public resentment.
Davidson notes that Congress may have been slow to act in previous years, but he notes that then "you had safer districts. Today, that's changed."
"I can't think of any time when these perquisites have become so central," he says. "When things like this come out, public opinion is very easily mobilized."
Staff writer Art Pine, one of The Times' congressional correspondents, enjoys free press parking privileges at the Capitol and, occasionally, has a subsidized tuna fish sandwich--for $2.10--at the Senate snack bar.
House and Senate Perks
Congressional perquisites are in the spotlight after disclosure of abuses at the House bank. Here is a list of some of the privileges available to House and Senate members: Discounts: Haircuts Shoe shines Physician's care: exams, lab work, immunizations, cardiograms Prescription drugs Free parking at Capitol, Washington-area airports and Union Station Car washes Stationery and gift merchandise Restaurants and catering services Private gym and health club Discount lodging at national parks Massages Radio-television studio services Satellite time for radio-TV transmissions Free services: Postage for non-personal mail Photographic and framing services Foreign travel aboard military aircraft Flowers from U.S. Botanical Garden Other benefits: $3,000 tax deduction for living expenses (most lawmakers maintain two homes--one in Washington and one in their district) Education expenses for members and their families Special license plates that allow unrestricted parking Use of frequent-flyer mileage from taxpayer-paid trips for personal travel (other government employees may not) Exclusive elevators Borrowing privileges from National Gallery of Art for office decor Hideaway offices for more senior members Special exemption from many laws--such as the Freedom of Information Act Congressional travel service Capitol IRS office for help with tax returns Library service from Library of Congress Control over some patronage jobs Source: Times staff reports