Does anyone pity the poor congressman? He spends much of his life on the road, eating rubber chicken or repugnant local specialties, in between making a few speeches and shaking a whole lot of hands. And when he comes off the road, he generally does not go home to whatever fair district where he once chose to live, but to Washington, which may not actually be a badly paved swamp, but sure feels like one come June.
To add insult to injury, it’s become a very expensive pseudoswamp. When I moved here 10 years ago, it was possible to rent a room in a house for a few hundred dollars a month. Now, to hear tell from the young’uns, a mere bedroom in a group house starts around $1,000 a month — and then heads north at a brisk clip. Apartments in convenient locations are considerably more dear. Which is why some members of Congress spend their time in Washington sleeping on cots in their offices.
Now that he’s retiring, and can’t be accused of self-interest, Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah is suggesting that perhaps voters might want to offer their representatives some help affording their own little slice of the quagmire. He’s floated the idea of giving our representatives a $2,500 a month housing allowance (that term sounds so much better than “raise”), so that they can actually procure a room with walls and a bed.
It is, in truth, hard to pity the poor congressman. They make $174,000 a year, which may not be private island money, but is a whole heck of a lot more than most Americans make. And while they do have some unusual expenses, even once you net out the suits, the travel incidentals, and the pop psych books on managing a long-distance marriage, they’re still doing better than, say, your average trucker.
However, when a job entails unusual travel expenses, it is customary for the employer, not the employee, to pay them. We the people employ these folks; we should probably make sure they’re decently housed — if for no other reason than it sort of offends the dignity of the office to force lawmakers to sleep in it.
Yet it seems worth pointing out that our congresscritters could do something to help themselves, without even dipping into the federal treasury. Thanks to Washington’s unique constitutional status, Congress has more power over its operations than over any other city. The city has “home rule,” to be sure, but that home rule was a gift from Congress, and Congress can take back that gift any time they want. Or amend it, to slash through the array of zoning regulations that help to make Washington housing so expensive. At the very least, they could repeal the height limits, dating from 1899, which make it impossible to build true high-rises in downtown Washington, and thereby forces up the price of conveniently located housing.
This effort would be beloved of many conservatives, who are rather fond of the free market. It would be beloved of many progressives, who have come to realize that NIMBYism and strict zoning regulations are forcing the poor out of many desirable cities. And it would do a very good thing for the poor and the middle class who live in and around Washington — for now, anyway.
But here’s the best news of all for politicians who contemplate this plan: The only folks who would get angry about it can’t vote any of them out of office. Elsewhere in the country, plans to strip away onerous housing regulations generally die a quick and painful death, because homeowners get very, very angry if you suggest a new law that will help developers change the character of their neighborhood, or lower their property values. We have plenty of those folks in D.C., mind you — theoretically in favor of affordable housing, and practically opposed to any plan that would actually make housing affordable. On the local level, they’ve done a pretty good job at stymieing various efforts to increase Washington’s housing supply. But because D.C. is not a state, its residents have no vote in the government body that ultimately controls their city.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they have no pull. You know who has homes in Washington? A whole lot of lobbyists, congressional staffers, and former members of Congress, who collectively provide a lot of input to what ultimately emerges from Capitol Hill. A lot of those folks are going to think about freeing the housing market, think about the repercussions to their largest assets, and quietly decide to work on something else. And if a congressman proposes something as outlandish as letting developers build more houses for people to live in, many of those same folks will go into overdrive, coming up with reasons why that’s a bad idea.
But the protectionists are wrong to keep developers from building housing people clearly want, and our legislators should have the courage to ignore them. Courageous congressmen could right that wrong, if they are willing to bear the outraged squeals from affluent Washingtonians. And if the volume of the squealing should ever cause their courage to waver, they have a ready tonic close to hand: just walk over to the corner of their offices, and take a long, hard look at that cot.
Megan McArdle wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.