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The Mixed Symbolism of Paul Ryan Sleeping in His Office

Ryan has no intention of paying rent off campus. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Many colorful “firsts” are accompanying Paul D. Ryan into the speakership. Most are distinctions from his past he can do nothing to alter: The only Wisconsinite to ever preside over the House, the first who’s been Ways and Means chairman, waited tables on Capitol Hill or toiled as a House staffer.  

There’s one symbolically important aspect of his present life, however, that’s also unprecedented among House speakers — and that he may be pressed to change:  

He sleeps in his office . That may be true of dozens of members, most of them fellow Republican conservatives eager to show their constituents they haven’t “gone Washington,” even though their jobs are mainly in Washington.  

But it’s not been the case with any of the 53 people who preceded Ryan in his new position, which makes him second in the order of presidential succession as well as titular guardian of the prerogatives, precedents and institutional reputation of the House of Representatives.  

“I’ve been doing it for at least a decade and I’m going to keep doing it,” he declared Sunday on CNN.  

With that decision, Ryan seems to be putting a premium on preserving his humble workaholic persona — and hoping that, in doing so, he helps alter the perception of the House as simultaneously pompous and underperforming.  

Reversal: How Paul Ryan Became Speaker of the House

Had he decided to get his own place, Ryan would have been tackling the chamber’s ill repute a totally different way: He’d be signaling that the serious business of legislating is helped when members display both self-respect and institutional respect, and a top official who freeloads to make a political point is not leading by example.  

“You’re the speaker now. You’re really going to still sleep in your office?” veteran congressional reporter Dana Bash asked Ryan on “State of the Union.” And when he began by describing himself as “just a normal guy,” she noted the obvious: “Normal guys don’t sleep in their offices.”  

To that, Ryan offered the rationale he’s been supplying for years. “I commute back and forth every week. I just work here. I don’t live here. So I get up very early in the morning. I work out. I work till about 11:30 at night. I go to bed, and I do the same thing the next day. It actually makes me more efficient. I can actually get more work done by sleeping on a cot in my office.”  

Critics say his reasoning should be trumped by the spirit, if not the letter, of House rules and federal tax law. The IRS says employer-paid lodging is generally a taxable fringe benefit, requiring the employee to list as income the estimated market value of the living arrangement. And members are admonished against using “official resources” for anything other than government business.  

The House Ethics Committee has nonetheless been silent on the matter, which members interpret as tantamount to giving permission. That said, for Republican fiscal conservatives such as Ryan, there’s an obvious dissonance between pushing to shrink the federal safety net and accepting totally subsidized government housing. (With laundry machines and showers in the members’ gym, nightly custodial servicing of their offices and ample heat, electricity, Internet lines and cable TV, the sleep-over caucus wants for no creature comforts.)  

For Ryan, saving money need not be part of the equation. While many who crash next to their desks cite the financial strain of paying for a place in D.C. while servicing a mortgage back home, Ryan is no longer making the $174,000 salary of the rank-and-file. He got an approximately 28 percent raise along with his new responsibilities. And with that $49,500 extra he can afford to rent a nice apartment near the office and still have maybe half his raise left over.  

Ryan says he uses a cot because, at six-feet, one-inch, he’s too big to get comfy on a standard-issue congressional couch. He says he’ll be keeping the contraption in his three-room 1st District of Wisconsin suite, on the second floor of the Longworth Building.  

The alternative is moving his bedding to the sprawling covey of 19th century splendor the speaker controls in the Capitol. That might actually be easier on his new security detail. But it’s a non-starter, Ryan explained on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” at least until after fumigation to rid the suite of five years’ worth of John A. Boehner’s chain-smoking memories.  

During his speakership in the 1980s, Democrat Jim Wright, a Texan who lived in Northern Virginia during the workweek, forbade members to crash in their offices on the grounds that it was degrading to the whole House.  

None of his successors has spoken out against the practice, but none has joined the trend, either. Thomas S. Foley got in early on Hill gentrification, renovating a town house a mile east of the Capitol in the 1990s. Newt Gingrich leased an apartment across from the Supreme Court. J. Dennis Hastert shared a rented row house with several senior aides. Nancy and Paul Pelosi have a place in Georgetown.  

And Boehner, who also cultivated a Midwestern regular guy persona, said he relished the solitude of his English basement flat a couple of blocks from the Cannon Building. He likes it well enough that he’s going to keep it for his return trips from Ohio or Florida. So Ryan couldn’t emulate that particular part of Boehner’s tenure, even if he wanted to.

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