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Their House Away From Home : Republican reps say sleeping in their offices is efficient. Democrats call it a gimmick.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It’s early in the morning, and the phones and faxes that will soon be abuzz, heralding the start of another congressional day, are still silent as Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) slowly picks himself up from his office floor.

Elsewhere in the aging Longworth House office building, his GOP colleague Mark Sanford of South Carolina is also stirring, while Peter Hoekstra of Michigan is already on his way to the showers.

They are not alone. On many mornings, at least half a dozen members of Congress--some say as many as 20--are getting ready for a hard day on the Hill after a hard day’s night spent curled up next to their mahogany desks in House office buildings.

More and more, it seems that the People’s House by day has become a flophouse by night.

It’s not exactly luxury living.

Janitors come in to vacuum in the wee hours, trash carts go rolling down the empty marble halls like bowling balls, and come 7 a.m., every clock in every room buzzes and bings to restart the congressional schedule.

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For the past two years, Kingston, a spry onetime insurance agent, has bedded down a couple of nights a week (three or four during the current session’s grueling first 100 days) on a thin mail-order mattress laid atop the rug in his 11-foot-by-18-foot office. After a morning jog to the Lincoln memorial, he showers in the House gym. He schleps his laundry home to Savannah on weekends.

“We don’t get together and have Rush Limbaugh pajama parties and watch the NFL,” said Kingston, referring to five other congressmen who admit to having turned the House into their weekday home.

Besides Kingston, Sanford and Hoekstra, confirmed congressional campers are Bob Inglis of South Carolina, Scott McInnis (R-Colo.) and Scott L. Klug (R-Wis.).

All are male, young (under 45), evidently have flexible spines, and have families who, following the trend for newer members, have chosen not to accompany them to Washington.

Coincidentally, all are also Republicans. While most say they are sleeping in for reasons of efficiency--they can work even longer hours--there’s an element of mortification of the flesh that they evidently hope will impress their constituents next election day.

“My constituents are getting more out of me than if I go out with lobbyists every night,” Kingston said. “The people of Georgia did not send me here to be a Washingtonian.”

Or are they just being cheap?

Kingston denied money is a factor, noting that he sublet his sister’s condo in Virginia when he first came to Washington in 1993 and could return to it if he chose.

Instead, he said he uses the three or more hours he would otherwise spend on commuting and other daily “non-productive lifestyle features,” answering mail, returning phone calls and reading legislation.

“I’m a weekday warrior. My heart and mind are in the first district Georgia,” Kingston said.

McInnis, also on his second term, shares Kingston’s focus.

“Our constituents are such that if he got a big house out here, he wouldn’t get reelected,” said spokeswoman Audrey Hudson. “They didn’t elect him to hobnob in Washington.”

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Whatever these reps’ constituents may think, House Democrats have another opinion.

“Gimmickry,” contended Rep. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, the House chief deputy minority whip. “It’s part of the ‘contract with America’ image, but neither their constituents nor their colleagues are impressed by it.”

Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) complained to House Oversight Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) that the office dwellers, who earn an annual salary of $133,500 and are entitled to a $3,000 tax deduction for Washington living expenses, were getting an unfair government perk.

“Simply put, we are allowing Members of Congress to live in a taxpayer-funded office building when we do not allow any other taxpayer that benefit,” Schroeder wrote in a letter back in January that, her representative said, has yet to be answered.

Rep. Gerald Klecka (D-Wis.), a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, has suggested legislation that would oblige sleep-over members to pay taxes on an “employer benefit” as they have recently been made to do on parking spaces.

Given the Republican majority, however, such protests are likely to be symbolic.

“Who controls the House now?” noted Ric Grenell, spokesman for Sanford, a millionaire from Charleston who prides himself on sacking out on a humble futon when he’s in town.

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Hudson, from McInnis’ staff, said the Democrats were overreacting and compared a congressman sleeping in a House office to a trucker pulling over to the side of the road in the middle of the night.

“I wouldn’t call working till 2 o’clock in the morning and catching a couple of hours shut-eye on a couch or the floor a perk,” she said.

Former Rep. Fred Grandy (R-Iowa) agreed.

“It’s cruel and unusual punishment,” said Grandy, calling himself a “recovering resident of Longworth,” the 62-year-old House office building where most of the sleep-overs go on.

“The Ways and Means Committee room in the building has a sort of Versailles feel to it, but the offices were nasty,” recalled Grandy, who lost a bid to become Iowa governor and is about to become president of Goodwill Industries Inc.

Grandy praised freshman Rep. Sonny Bono (R-Calif.) for moving his family to Washington, thus maintaining balance in his life and “taking the march of the 100 days with a grain of salt.”

As for the office dwellers, he said, “that kind of bunker mentality will produce acrimony in the long run.”

So far, House Republican leaders appear unconcerned about the practice--perhaps because the campers are copying the nocturnal habits of one of their own.

Dick Armey of Texas slept on a cot in the House gym when he came to Washington in 1985 until he was evicted by then-Speaker Tip O’Neill. Now Armey is the new majority leader and lives in a house in Maryland.


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