Don't give congressmen a housing subsidy; make them live in dorms.

Don’t Give Congressmen a Housing Subsidy. Make Them Live in Dorms.

Don’t Give Congressmen a Housing Subsidy. Make Them Live in Dorms.

The Slatest
Your News Companion
June 28 2017 3:38 PM

Don’t Give Congressmen a Housing Subsidy. Make Them Live in Dorms.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Thinkstock and Win McNamee/Getty Images.
As long as Chaffetz is in Congress, he belongs in a dorm.

Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Thinkstock and Win McNamee/Getty Images.

On Tuesday, Rep. Jason Chaffetz said that members of Congress ought to get a housing stipend along with their salaries: Maintaining residences in both Washington, D.C., and their home districts, the soon-to-be-erstwhile congressman argued, is simply too expensive on a meager $174,000 salary. Detractors quickly piped up that Chaffetz is the same guy who recently recommended that in order to afford health insurance, all Americans have to do is forgo new iPhones: In terms of financial advice, he’s no Suze Orman. But still, maybe he’s onto something; maybe members of Congress do need a housing solution for when the legislature is in session so they’re not sleeping on cots in their offices, as Chaffetz did. And maybe the answer is right in front of us: We should take inspiration from one of America’s greatest institutions, higher education, and make our representatives live in dorms.

Real estate in D.C. is costly, a problem some representatives already address by shacking up together: The Amazon TV show Alpha House was based on the real-life Capitol Hill house that Sens. Dick Durbin and Chuck Schumer shared with Rep. George Miller.* But for as long as our government exists in its current form—one hopes that it will for the foreseeable future, though who knows—there will be senators and representatives who need places to stay in D.C. And so until we relieve them of the responsibility of finding somewhere to live, they’ll have to waste valuable time and energy looking for somewhere, time and energy that could be better spent representing their constituents. So why not just build a dorm for ‘em?

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This idea has been thrown around before, but let’s really think it through: After the initial construction—is there any way to make Mexico pay for that?—dorms are thrifty. All the members of the House and Senate could probably be squeezed into one or two buildings. A cafeteria could serve their morning and evening meals, and basically all their amenities would be taken care of: More time to pass legislation and make America, uh, whatever they need to make it. These dorms would not be cushy, though. Not every American gets to go to college, so in order to avoid the appearance of elitism, congressional living arrangements would have to be thoroughly average, full of lofted desks and those concrete blocks you put beds on (twin size, naturally) and plastic storage bins. This is Real America, lawmakers: If you want to represent your country, you better be prepared to live abstemiously.

How would it work, under the Slate plan? The dorms would be co-ed, but there would be a special floor just for women-identifying reps that, due to their historic underrepresentation, would be comparatively pristine. No one in the women’s caucus gets pee all over the bathroom floor, that’s for sure. Dorm living would be mandatory for congressional freshmen and subject to a housing lottery thereafter, meaning eventually all the cool Democrats on a certain committee could live together in an upperclassman suite, but first they would have to spend at least a term with a randomly selected roommate who is, in all likelihood, diametrically opposed to everything they stand for. Best of luck to whoever ends up paired with Sen. Ted Cruz: Cruz’s actual college roommate still dines out on tales of the horrors of rooming with him at Princeton. There could be themed halls for people with similar interests: film lovers, sci-fi fans, climate change deniers.

But mostly, it would just be funny to subject these blowhards to dorm life. Let these politicians live with roommates and no air conditioning. Let them be sexiled. Let them try to hide illegal crockpots and drugs from the resident advisers, who would be chosen by internal elections. Let them live with curfews—no lobbyists on the floors after 10 p.m. Let them fight over control of the television in the lounge; let South Carolina’s elected representatives try to secede when Fox News is temporarity banned. Let them try to write laws with the very same people they’re mad at for clogging the toilets. (If you thought Al Franken was pissed when Ted Cruz helped shut down the government, wait’ll you see him after Cruz microwaves fish in the communal kitchen.) Let them get sick of the whole business after their third term and eschew re-election.

Short of campaign finance reform and term limits, it might be the best hope for democracy we’ve got.

*Correction, June 29, 2017: This piece originally misspelled Sen. Dick Durbin’s last name.