Should lawmakers be sleeping in their offices during a pandemic?

Some office sleepers remain undaunted about the propriety

Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, who sleeps in his office, tested positive for the novel coronavirus last week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, who sleeps in his office, tested positive for the novel coronavirus last week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 7, 2020 at 10:49am

Some members of Congress sleep in their offices to show they’re not of Washington, but in pandemic times that raises questions about the safety of others who work on Capitol Hill.

Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert, a noted office sleeper who frequently refused to wear a mask, tested positive for the coronavirus last week, leading some to worry that lawmakers staying overnight could put staff at greater risk of getting the virus. Democratic leadership in the House has made masks mandatory but has not revisited the issue of whether members should sleep in their offices.

[Should the Capitol start COVID-19 testing for staff and members?]

California Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, who earlier this year sent a letter asking for a ban on members sleeping in the House office buildings due to the pandemic, said in a statement that Gohmert’s behavior in and around the Capitol complex was “dangerous and reckless,” and referenced his sleeping arrangements.

“Where is he going to quarantine? In the same office and building with members, staffers, and congressional employees and U.S. Capitol Police?” Speier said. Gohmert told host Sean Hannity on his radio show last week that he wouldn’t quarantine in his office and would drive back to Texas, but that did not settle the broader issue of how hygienic the situation is.

After Gohmert tested positive, he reportedly informed his office staff in person. Shortly after, media reports trickled out that his staff had been discouraged from wearing masks and urged to show up in person.

Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at The George Washington University, said the bigger risk comes from so many people gathering in one spot.

“The problem isn’t the member sleeping in their office; the problem is asking staff to come in every day when that work could be potentially done remotely,” she said. “The problem is requiring people to come in when they don’t need to come in.”

Wen previously served as Baltimore’s health commissioner and was briefly president of Planned Parenthood.

The decision about whether congressional staff are allowed to work remotely or in person is made on an office-by-office basis, though congressional leaders have encouraged members to limit the number of staff working at the Capitol campus and to use staggered and rotating schedules.

Andy Slavitt, former acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said it would be best for staff to distance themselves from a member’s makeshift bedroom.

“I would keep staff out of the room they sleep in,” he said in an email.

Office sleepers

Sen. Kevin Cramer, who served in the House from 2013 to 2019, said he “loved” being an office sleeper, but when he was elected to the Senate last year he got his own place in Washington.

The North Dakota Republican said he knows that there are “a lot of” members of the House — both Republicans and Democrats — who sleep in their offices, and “there’s some senators too, but I’m not one of them.” He declined to name any names.

He said he didn’t see anything wrong with members continuing to sleep in their offices, saying that whether a lawmaker is sleeping in their office isn’t much different than “spending 12 hours during the day in your office.”

He also pointed out that right now the Capitol is closed to the public during the pandemic. Capitol Police and many other legislative branch staff, including cleaning crews for the offices, are required to be at the Capitol, though, pandemic or not.

“I think that’s, that’s an attempt to sort of overthink the issue,” Cramer said. “Everybody’s going to sleep somewhere, and wherever they’re sleeping, if they have COVID, that’s where COVID’s going to exist.”

Anywhere from 40 to 100 members sleep in their offices. Estimates are difficult because there is no central database.

Washington’s high cost of real estate is sometimes cited as a reason for why they make their homes in their offices. Most senators, representatives, delegates and the resident commissioner from Puerto Rico are paid $174,000, with leadership being paid more.

For many, however, it’s not the cost of living keeping them from renting or buying in the area — it’s the perception of what having an address in the “swamp” looks like to constituents.

North Carolina GOP Rep. Ted Budd, who took issue with Speier’s May letter, maintains that members should be allowed to choose the living arrangement that works for them and continues to sleep in his office.

“He follows the CDC guidelines and hasn’t been in the vicinity of Rep. Gohmert recently,” Budd spokesman Curtis Kalin said in an email to CQ Roll Call. Since the Gohmert news, at least two more members have tested positive: Democratic Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona and Republican Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, who is the ranking member on the House Administration Committee.

In January 2019, House Administration Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., announced that the committee would study the issue of members sleeping in their offices. Lofgren and committee staff did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this story.

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