Rep. Ron DeSantis glances at the tv as he returns to his office after changing into more comfortable clothes for the evening. He will sleep on the couch later. [Andre Chung | For the Tampa Bay Times]
One recent night in the glamorous life of a congressman in Washington:
U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, the leading Republican candidate for Florida governor, is in his office sitting on a black, faux leather couch in T-shirt and gym shorts, a fuzzy grey blanket and pillow at his side. He is pouring over papers, and a DO NOT DISTURB door knob sign dangles outside his door to keep the janitorial crew from barging in as he snoozes.
He looked more like a beleaguered spouse booted from his house than the constitutionally elected voice of 700,000 Floridians in Daytona Beach and northeast Florida.
No wonder the guy wants to leave Washington to lead Florida as governor.
Depressing as it sounds, this is how DeSantis and dozens of other members of Congress choose to live in Washington. They sleep on couches and air mattresses, shower in the mildly seedy U.S. House gym. No one has a firm estimate of how many members are in the so-called "couch caucus," but estimates range from 40 to more than 100.
Beats paying $2,000 a month in rent for a part-time second home, they say, saves commuting time, and lets them focus on the job taxpayers elected them to do.
"If I had to live in a DC suburb, which is probably what I’d have to do, I would lose two hours a day commuting," DeSantis, 39, explained, shortly after a phone call to strategize with a fellow founding member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, North Carolina’s Mark Meadows, about a long-shot congressional term limits bill.
DeSantis allowed a Tampa Bay Times reporter to shadow him for a day in the U.S. Capitol — not while he snoozed, mind you — surely aware that the image of a congressman not getting too comfortable in the beltway swamp plays well with voters at home. (His GOP primary opponent, Adam Putnam, bought a two bedroom townhome near the Capitol for $325,000 after he became a House member in 2001 and sold it 10 years later for $600,000 as he left Congress.)
Men and women and Republicans and Democrats alike choose to live out of their House offices, but the practice is mainly associated with staunch conservative males like DeSantis.
Critics say the practice not only gives members taxpayer-subsidized housing but also seems a bit, well…
"Unhealthy, unsanitary — and some people would say it’s almost nasty," Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, told Politico earlier this year after two dozen members of the Congressional Black Caucus sought an investigation into the practice by the House Ethics Committee.
Think of the constituents, House employees, lobbyists who visit a House member in his or her office chat, never suspecting the couch they’re sitting on hours held a snoring, drooling politician hours earlier.
For the record, a DeSantis spokeswoman said he does neither. And the Palm Bay Republican called the criticism "ridiculous."
"People have been doing this for decades. My constituents appreciate that I’m doing it like this, because I’m getting more done," he said.
"I’m so much more productive here. When I’m done with everything at night, I’ll have the stuff for the next day sitting here. I can read whatever I need to read — amendments, committee stuff — crash, go to the gym right here. I probably gain at least two hours a day in productivity."
Rep. Thompson is sponsoring a bill to halt congressional office camping, but its prognosis appears weak in the short-term. Both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy sleep in their offices.
It’s not for everybody.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, stopped living out of his office after an awkward night in which another resident of the Cannon House Office building climbed under the covers with him.
"It was either a large mouse, or a large rat, but I wasn’t going to stick around to find out," said Gaetz, who now spends $2,000 a month — more than his monthly mortgage payment in Florida — to rent a place in Washington.
House members earn $174,000 annually. Paying for a permanent residence at home and a part-time one in pricey Washington can be a stretch, especially for one-income families.
DeSantis’ wife, Jacksonville-area TV personality Casey Black DeSantis, mostly lives at home with their 18-month-old daughter and eight-week-old son. The congressman does spring for a hotel when she visits Washington.
U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami, used to rent an apartment for $1,800 a month but said it was more depressing than sleeping on a cot in his House office.
"I thought it would be weird, but it’s fine. It works," he said. "It’s like boot camp. You’re there to do a job. Also, it’s very convenient. Sometimes you want to talk to colleagues, convince colleagues. You’re just always here so you have easy access."
DeSantis made the same point, that sleeping, working out and showering under the same roof, vast as it may be, helps builds relationships among colleagues who have remarkably few opportunities to interact when Congress is in session.
In more comfortable clothes for the evening, Rep. Ron DeSantis goes over some paperwork. He will sleep on the couch later. [Andre Chung for the Tampa Bay Times]
On an elevator ride in the Rayburn House Office building, DeSantis ran into a Democrat from California — a locker room friend — and promptly whipped out his phone to show off pictures of his 8-week-old son and his trip to Jerusalem for the embassy opening.
Living together can sometimes get too close for comfort, however.
Democratic former U.S. Rep. Eric Massa in 2010 recounted how then-White House Chief of Staff and former Rep. Rahm Emanuel once confronted him the House gym: "I am showering, naked as a jaybird, and here comes Rahm Emanuel, not even with a towel wrapped around his tush, poking his finger in my chest, yelling at me."
Massey knows something about awkward workplace behavior. He resigned from office amid allegations of sexual misconduct, which he brushed off as mere tickle fights with employees.
House office accommodations are not deluxe, but former Navy lawyer DeSantis noted that he has slept in a tent in Iraq so he is perfectly happy spending few days a week eating dinner from a vending machine and sleeping on his couch.
Standing in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, Rep. Ron DeSantis prepares for his appearance on Lou Dobbs Tonight on Fox News. [Andre Chung for the Tampa Bay Times]
DeSantis’ day when the Times tagged along:
• A three-mile run on the mall.
• Quick shower in the House gym.
• Closed-door House GOP conference meeting.
• Office meetings with representatives of the Audubon Society, Florida Realtors officials, the Florida Society of Anesthesiologists, Citizens for Space Exploration, and the Speciality Equipment Market Association and the Promotional Products Association.
• Several hearings and committee meetings.
• Chats by phone and in-person with several House members and a senator on legislative strategy.
• His weekly drill meeting with the Navy Reserve, for whom his is a lieutenant commander.
• Phone chat with with a conservative talk radio host in West Palm Beach, Brian Mudd.
• Satellite TV interview with Fox Business Network’s Lou Dobbs while standing behind a statue of Brigham Young in the Capitol’s hall of statues.
• Satellite interview in Fox News’ Washington studio with Sean Hannity, who is promoting his candidacy for governor.
Gaetz, another cable TV favorite, said it is not unusual to see DeSantis speaking to a camera in the capitol in a jacket, tie, well-pressed shirt.
His gym shorts are out just out of camera view.
Alex Leary contributed to this report.
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