Over the next few weeks, more than 100 fresh-faced Members will prepare for their arrival on the Hill. They will set up their offices, assemble staff and steel themselves for the monumental legislative issues facing the 112th Congress.
They will also have to deal with some more mundane tasks, such as where to live.
Instead of wasting their milk money on rent or bunking with their colleagues, many Members will decide to simply live in their offices. According to unofficial estimates, anywhere from 30 to more than 50 Members in the current Congress sleep on cots, sofas, futons or air mattresses in the Capitol and shower in the House gym. (The more august Senators apparently are too refined for this practice.)
For many tea party types, the following may be counterintuitive: When it comes to Members’ personal living situations, perhaps Washington has much to teach the rest of the country. While living at work goes back to the Industrial Age model of factory towns, it may be the solution for many of the most pressing policy dilemmas of the 21st century.
Consider the nation’s infrastructure problem. According to an alarming bipartisan report issued last month by current and former Department of Transportation officials, the federal government will face an annual shortfall of $194 billion through 2035 for transportation funding. Because the federal Highway Trust Fund is based on a per-gallon gasoline tax, the 2007 energy bill exacerbated this deficit by raising fuel-economy standards to 35 miles per gallon. As Americans are forced to use less gas, the government is forced to run on fumes.
If more Americans, like Members, lived at work, they would not commute as much and thus tax our nation’s crumbling roads, bridges and rails less. An added benefit would be increased productivity or leisure time. According to the findings in the Telework Tax Incentive Act, the average American now spends almost an hour each day commuting to and from work, or 204 hours each year. The bill also estimates that traffic congestion costs Americans $87 million annually in lost time and fuel.
An additional benefit of living at work is the reduced pressure on the nation’s housing supply. The Census Bureau estimates that the current American population of 310 million will balloon to 439 million by 2050. This year, construction is projected to begin on 672,000 new homes, but this is less than half of the rate needed to meet the nation’s long-term population growth. The recent collapse in the housing market has only depressed incentives for homebuilders.
With increasing concerns about the sustainability of population growth, it may be time to reconsider society’s work and living arrangements. Having distinct office buildings and residences seems to be increasingly inefficient. If more Americans lived at work, we could instantly free up approximately half of our real estate and eliminate the housing crunch.
One last virtue of living at work, which is related to the other two issues discussed above, is the environmental benefit. All the millions of miles that Americans spend on commuting takes an enormous toll in the form of hundreds of millions of barrels of oil used and tons of greenhouse gases emitted each year. Forget about cap-and-trade (or “cap-and-tax,” as Republicans prefer to call it). Whatever one’s personal ideological views are on the practice, to the extent government continues to use the tax code as a means to exert economic and social control, it should incentivize companies to provide their employees with housing where they work. Doing so would be an enormous boon for the environment.
But what about less drastic measures, such as encouraging people to work from home, as the Telework Tax Incentive Act would do? This, dear bill sponsors, is not the solution. If working from home were as effective as working at the office, office buildings would never have been built in the first place.
There are certain network efficiencies that come from face-to-face contact with colleagues that telecommuting simply cannot match. Nor is more urbanization the answer. The notion that cities reduce congestion defies reality. Moreover, many Americans dislike living in cities, and an emphasis on urban growth detracts from development of suburban and rural office-residential complexes.
The major social challenge to living at work is couples who work in different locations. But here, Congress again may serve as a model. For example, Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) married her colleague Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-Fla.), while Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.) married former Rep. Max Sandlin (D-Texas).
It is often said that “Americans live to work, while Europeans work to live,” but it has not yet been said that Americans live at work. In this respect, when it comes to solving our nation’s infrastructure, housing and environmental challenges, perhaps we should take a cue from Congress.
Eric Wang is a political law attorney. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.