Frugal – should Congressmen sleep in their offices? (2/15/11)
My Home is My Office
Frugality is back – or so many Congressmen are telling us. The governmental debt burden, Federal, state and municipal, is too great. To save money, many Congressmen, especially freshmen, are deciding to sleep and live in their offices.
Not so fast, declares Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility. Congressional rules allow for “incidental” use of offices, not as living quarters – and “I don’t think most staff want to come in and see their boss…in pajamas.”
Already the debate has been defined in partisan terms, including criticism of the “left leaning” group Ms. Sloan represents. The truth is the situation is complicated, filled with implications about work-life balance. There are many advantages and disadvantages to living at one’s place of work. Doctors who have often worked 100+ hour weeks and lived at their places of employment are in a position to talk about the issue with more personal experience than most.
1. “Frugality”. Living at work saves money. If you are paying a mortgage, have kids, and are trying to send them to private secondary school or college, money can be really tight. Congress provides for its members food, athletic facilities, grooming and other services that would put most corporations, except for some in Silicon Valley, quickly to shame.
However, living at work may aid individuals, but is not true frugality. The showers, athletic facilities, dining facilities, meeting facilities and food services are subsidized by the same government funds many members are now want to cut to shrink the budget deficit. It’s a lot easier using the electricity when somebody else, namely the government, is paying for it. Congressmen who can’t possibly conceive that their behavior compares with “welfare cheats” living in subsidized housing should think again. Here Ms. Sloan’s criticism that members living in their offices should pay for government supported services hits home.
2. Ability to survive the 24-7 news cycle. Politics is now a seven day a week operation; media is king. Anything can happen anytime. Living at work makes response to the news cycle quicker, easier, and potentially more efficient.
3. Regularity of daily pattern. In a 24-7 world it’s sometimes simple to lose track of day and night. Living in an office building fits you to the rhythms of that building. Cleaning people arrive at certain times, as do staff and other services. Everything follows a particular order of public time. For bodies that are trying to survive the 24-7 news game, this regularity of pattern can help create a regular pattern to the day. People perform and feel better when their biological clocks are set and patterned.
4. Potentially less use of energy resources. If you live outside work you have to get there. Though Washington has a superb metro, cars cost money, take time to drive, and pollute.
5. Lesser tendencies for social gaffes, like affairs. Already one Congressman has resigned, having been found soliciting internet dates while very much married. It should be harder, though very far from impossible, to engage illicit affairs when your office is your bedroom. Staffers, however, beware.
1. Turning your work into your life. Politics is a closely played game and profession that many like to work at all day and night. However, living at the office can make the office your life. Humans are social animals. There’s a lot more to life than work, and people, like medical professionals, can become burned out living and working in one place.
2. The Bunker Mentality. When you live and work in the same place you see the same people and engage the same discussions – often with the same people. This works in wartime, and particularly in military operations, to increase efficiency, but is not necessarily in a politician’s or the nation’s best interest. Politics is the art of the possible and the soluble. That means you have to constantly talk with people who don’t agree with you.
Congressmen are meant to represent all the people. The Washington area is a remarkably varied place where virtually all the different populations of the U.S. and much of the world live and sometimes mingle. The district’s variety can expand one’s mind. You won’t meet as many of these people sequestered in the same office.
3. Inability to rest. There’s always work to be done, and most Congressmen can tell you their work is endless. In order to function, you have to rest.
That’s much more to rest than sleep. It’s much more effective to rest actively – using physical, social, mental and spiritual rest. Though obviously any Congressman can get out of the office anytime she wants, it’s much easier emotionally and psychically to have your own space to live and control. Otherwise, your work space will start to control your life.
4. Social Space. Even if Congressmen like becoming total workaholics, offices are not the place to meet and enjoy one’s family and friends. Hotels are poor substitutes for one’s own space and the many pleasures of privacy.
5. Learning. There is now pretty good evidence that humans learn more if they learn in more than one site. You actually will remember better if you switch where you study. The business of government requires constant learning. Getting outside in nature also helps, improving people’s mood and pleasure.
Folks need fresh air. It’s easier when you have a room of one’s own.
Getting Your Private Space
For most of us who went through medical training obtaining a home of one’s own was a treasured milestone. It might be a fleabit studio in Manhattan or a tiny garden apartment in Indianapolis, but it was home, a place of refuge and mental independence.
Not everyone felt this way, though. During my internship one of us decided that since he pretty much lived at the San Diego V.A. he would literally live at the V.A., which supplied no apartments. He worked seven days a week anyway, often in 36 hour shifts. Why not use the hospital showers and cafeteria and leave it at that?
So Ben lived in his van. This horrified the V.A. police, who did not like a medical intern living in the parking lot. Routinely his doors would be loudly banged in the early morning hours. The head of the hospital police would fulminate before him “You will be served with a federal citation,” shouting that no one should live free on government land.
Finally Ben gave up. He liked his apartment but told me “Sometimes I really miss the van.”
Perhaps Congressmen will miss their offices someday, too.
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