News & Politics

It Actually Makes Sense for Members of Congress to Get DC Housing Stipends

Jason Chaffetz isn't totally wrong.

Photograph by Flickr user Michael Jolley.

House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz only has a few days left in Congress before he resigns to pursue opportunities in the, ahem, permanent pundit class. But before going, the Utah Republican gave an exit interview to the Hill on Tuesday in which he bemoaned the costs that members of Congress bear in splitting their time between Washington and their home states.

“Washington, DC, is one of the most expensive places in the world, and I flat-out cannot afford a mortgage in Utah, kids in college and a second place here in Washington, DC,” Chaffetz told the Hill. “I think a $2,500 housing allowance would be appropriate and a real help to have at least a decent quality of life in Washington if you’re going to expect people to spend hundreds of nights a year here”

It’s easy to scoff at Chaffetz. Here’s a member of Congress skipping out a quarter of the way through his fifth term so he can trade his $174,000 annual salary for something far more lucrative. Why should lawmakers—who sleep in Washington less than one-third of the year for a job that pays in the 97th percentile of all US incomes—get an extra $30,000 a year while the 6.1 million people who live in the DC metropolitan area and face its rising housing costs day get nothing? (For what it’s worth, a federal program comping all of us $2,500 a month for our living expenses would come out to about $183 billion per year.)

To top it off, Chaffetz has been one of those guys who sleeps on a rollaway cot in his office rather than test the waters of DC’s cutthroat real-estate market. At least 40 other House members share this habit, according to NPR, including Speaker Paul Ryan.

While Chaffetz isn’t a trusted authority on the costs of living—he recently suggested low-income earners facing the loss of their health insurance under a repeal of the Affordable Care Act forgo mobile phones in order to pay their medical bills—he’s not totally wrong about the price of housing in DC. Washington is the fifth-most expensive city to live in, according to Kiplinger, and maintaining a second residence here isn’t a cheap prospect, even if you are pulling down $174,000 a year.

Many members of Congress are wealthy to begin with, including Ryan, whose net worth CQ Roll Call pegs at just shy of $3 million. (And as speaker, he gets $223,500, a 28 percent bonus above the base pay.) Chaffetz, by comparison, ranks 301st out of 535, with about $320,000 to his name. That’s far from a pittance, but it’s also not a Scrooge McDuck swimming vault. But Chaffetz also told the Hill his idea for a housing stipend was to encourage people of all economic stripes to run for office. “…[Y]ou shouldn’t have to be among the wealthiest of Americans to serve properly in Congress,” he said.

It might be one of the few noble thoughts he’s uttered in public, especially if there are any aspiring public servants of modest means in some of the United States’ most expensive cities who might want to represent their communities in Congress. The cost of living in Salt Lake City is around the national median, but someone who wants to represent a district around Los Angeles, Seattle, or Miami might decide that public service is a game for the rich, and that’s hardly what the country needs more of right now.

It also makes a bit more sense when stacking Washington up against the capitals of other industrialized democracies and how they compensate their national legislatures. Unlike, say, London or Paris, DC is not its country’s largest city and hub of economic activity, but in the last couple decades, it has advanced enough to become one of its most expensive. Both the United Kingdom and France give members of their parliaments allowances for capital-area housing. British MPs, who earn base annual salaries of £76,011 ($96,812), can expense up to £22,760 (about $29,000) on renting in London, with more allowed if they are living with dependents. The French do it a bit differently. Each member of the National Assembly receives a monthly stipend of €7,100 ($7,956), of which 3 percent, or €165.44, is a dedicated residential allowance.

These systems are far from perfect, and can be corrupted under lax oversight, as in the case of an scandal in the UK in 2009 in which the Telegraph found MPs claiming expenses on furniture, home appliances, swimming pool repairs, and one instance of a “duck house” for a backyard pond.

The most objectionable part of what Chaffetz told the Hill wasn’t the notion of a housing stipend, but the figure he offered. A monthly handout of $2,500 is too much when the US has one of the world’s highest-paying national legislatures. Members of Congress already get their travel between their home states and DC comped, but they get nothing in terms of housing or per diem expenses when they’re actually in town.

So here’s an idea: Similar to the French, set aside a chunk of those $174,000 salaries for in-town housing expenses, and throw in a raft of conditions. For starters, no more sleeping in the office. You don’t hear stories about MPs bunking down in Westminster or the Luxembourg Palace. The US Capitol is a workplace and tourist destination, not a crash pad and certainly not zoned for residential use. Forcing members of Congress to become legitimate (part-time) DC residents might make them a little more focused on their legislative duties, or at least happier humans if they have places where their entire families can stay. Second: Members have to show the receipts so we know they’re not just pocketing the money. Any member who uses a housing allowance should be required to post proof of a home title or rental agreement on their website.

And if any members don’t want to partake in the allowance, they can kick that money to federal programs that provide housing assistance to low-income Americans who actually need it.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.