What's the congressional gym like?

Answers to your questions about the news.
June 13 2011 4:51 PM

A Capitol Workout

What's the congressional gym like?

What happens at the congressional gym? Click image to expand.
What happens at the congressional gym?

More pictures of Anthony Weiner are making the rounds, including one of him posing topless in the locker room of the congressional gym. These photos raise new issues for ethics investigators, since they were taken on government property. But the Explainer's more curious to know—what's the House gym like?

It's like any midlevel commercial joint. The Architect of the Capitol, the office that oversees the House and Senate gyms, refuses to provide information about these facilities for "security reasons," so the only way to get a sense of them is from existing reports and chats with members. It seems that the House gym offers standard cardio and weight machines, plus a swimming pool, basketball courts, and paddleball courts. There's also a sauna and a steam room. Its three televisions are typically set to some combination of Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and ESPN.

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While the Senate gym is reportedly better appointed than the House facility, members don't describe either as luxurious. In fact, members of the House Gym Committee have been pushing for a renovation for at least a decade. Kentucky Republican Anne Northrup referred to the facility as "very inferior" in an appropriations hearing in 2001. In 2007, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi fought off an $8 million funding request from Rep. Neil Abercrombie, a Hawaii Democrat who wishes to maintain his ability to bench press 200 pounds more than his age. (Abercrombie, now the 72-year-old governor of Hawaii, can bench 272 pounds.)

Gym membership was once free for congressmen and -women. But in 1992 the Democratically controlled Congress instituted a $400 annual fee to counter allegations that politicians lead cushy lives on the public dime. Relatedly, all representatives, senators, and their spouses used to have access to the gyms even after they retired or were voted out. However, in 2007, alumni who went on to work as lobbyists were banned.

The congressional gyms were once genuine boys' clubs. The pool used to be male-only, and there were separate workout facilities for men and women. Rep. Bella Abzug fought successfully to integrate the pool in the 1970s. In 1982, first-term Rep. Barbara Boxer led a successful push to open the men's gym to women, since the women's facility was nothing more than "ten hair dryers and a ping pong table."

Congressmen who, like Rep. Weiner, ruin their reputations through inappropriate sexual advances have an odd tendency to drag the gym into the controversy. When Rep. Eric Massa resigned after allegedly sexually harassing and admittedly tickling his staffers, he complained about Rahm Emanuel  assailing him over a vote  while both men were naked in the shower area. *  Massa's complaints breached an unwritten rule of Congress: What happens in the gym stays in the gym.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Correction, June 14, 2011:
The article originally confused former Rep. Chris Lee, who sent shirtless pictures of himself over the Internet, with Rep. Eric Massa. The Explainer is having trouble keeping congressional improprieties straight. (Return to corrected sentence.)

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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