When South Dakota Republican Kristi Noem was looking for a new office at the beginning of this Congress, she knew she’d need one thing in particular: closet space.
Noem is one of dozens of lawmakers who, by day, work in the office buildings on the House side of the U.S. Capitol and, by night, live in them.
“There’s storage in this room here for my blankets and pillows,” Noem told NPR in a recent tour of her office in the Rayburn building.
These lawmakers say office living has some political benefit, but it’s mainly good way to save a buck in Washington.
Noem sleeps on a pullout in her office. She described her morning routine this way:
“There’s a gym in the basement, so I get up in the morning and go down to the member’s gym and work out with a group of people,” she said. “And then I go to the women’s gym and shower and put my makeup on and stuff and come back up here and get dressed.”
Sleeping in the office is not without some hazards, Noem said. One night in her old office, she was working late on her laptop when an unwelcome visitor arrived.
Noem is a farmer and a rancher, but she freaked out. She called a male staffer back to the office to help catch the mouse. They couldn’t find it, so for her peace of mind, she had him duct tape the bottom of her office door “so that it wouldn’t come in while I was sleeping,” she said.
The most prominent member of this “Couch Caucus”? Newly minted House Speaker Paul Ryan, who’s been sleeping in his office for years.
The Wisconsin Republican told CNN’s Dana Bash in a recent interview that he would keep doing it even if he is, now, second in line to the presidency.
“I’m just a normal guy,” Ryan said.
“But normal guys don’t sleep in their offices!” Bash replied.
Maybe it’s not normal, but there are no rules against it.
There’s also no official data on how many do it. Lawmakers estimate, though, that at least 40 House members sleep in their offices.
“I think there’s more than you might expect,” said Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky., who sleeps on a futon in his office. “There’s quite a few of us, particularly the younger members with young families back home in our districts. There’s quite a few — men and women.”
Noem is one of very few women who sleep in their office. Most of them are Republican men.
It’s good politics, particularly among conservatives, to make it known back home they’re not getting too comfortable in Washington. When Republican Bill Huizenga was campaigning for the Michigan seat vacated by Republican Rep. Pete Hoekstra, for example, voters wanted to know three things, Huizenga told NPR.
“People would ask me: What am I going to do about spending, what am I going to do about Obamacare and am I sleeping on my couch like Pete,” he said.
The transition was easy for Huizenga because, as he quipped, “I’m a cheap Dutchman.”
A handful of Democrats sleep in their offices, too, though Illinois Congressman Mike Quigley said he’s not trying to make a political statement.
“It’s not something I’m thrilled about,” he said. “It’s just circumstances.”
Quigley started sleeping in his office, in part, to save money to put his two daughters through college. Every lawmaker NPR interviewed said saving money was the main reason they do it.
Members of Congress make $174,000 a year, but maintaining a residence in the neighborhoods around the U.S. Capitol can easily cost approximately $2,000 a month. That’s a waste of money, these members said, if you’re only staying in Washington a few nights a week — and keeping a house in your home state.
“Next year’s schedule for the House activities? We’re here 83 nights. So you’re paying rent in a very expensive neighborhood for 282 nights you’re not here,” Quigley said.
Since next year is an election year, lawmakers will spend even less time in Washington, so sleeping in the office is not just practical, but maybe, also good politics.