Commentary Magazine


Congressional Residency Scandals Are Bunk

It’s hard to muster much sympathy for U.S. Senators. But let’s pause for a moment and commiserate with Mary Landrieu and Pat Roberts, two senators who apparently don’t own homes in the states they represent. While the symbolism of their decisions resonates in an era in which the public rightly resent Washington and the political class that call it home, the residency gap actually tells us more about changing public expectations of members of Congress than it does about their connection to home.

Roberts, who has represented Kansas in the Senate since 1996, had a near political death experience in a primary against a Tea Party challenger largely because of revelations that his official Kansas residence is the home of a supporter to whom he only pays rent when he is there campaigning. His Freudian slip in which he said he only lived in the state when he had an election challenge understandably didn’t sit well with fellow Kansans. Indeed, the 78-year-old is so unpopular these days that he might actually be in danger of losing a safe Republican seat in a 3-way general election race in which an independent rather than the Democratic nominee is the bigger threat.

Facing a similar barrage of criticism is Democrat Mary Landrieu who is also one of the most endangered of a group of red state incumbent senators up for re-election. It turns out Landrieu doesn’t own a residence in Louisiana but instead sleeps in her old room in her father’s home in New Orleans when in the state. The fact that she and her husband list their Capitol Hill home as their residence in official documents doesn’t help her persuade voters that there is nothing fishy about bunking with dad.

Like Roberts’s opponents, GOP challenger Bill Cassidy is making a meal out of these revelations and arguing that this proves that the senator is not only part and parcel of the DC liberal establishment but also out of touch with Louisianans.

For Landrieu, who is already dealing with a scandal about her use of government funds to pay for campaign expenses and the overall burden of being a member of Barack Obama’s party in a very red and conservative state, this might really be the tipping point in a race that already seemed to be going against her. In a year in which the GOP may be on the verge of taking back control of the Senate, Landrieu’s failure to have her own place to crash in while in Louisiana may prove to be a very expensive mistake.

But while not having your own home in the state you represent is a perfect metaphor for the idea that politicians go native once they roost in the Capitol, let’s also understand that this is more than a bit unfair.

For most of our history, members of the House and Senate were not expected, as they are today, to race back and forth between their districts and states and Washington every week to show constituents they care. Instead, they simply moved themselves to Washington for the duration of each lengthy session. Their children (such as former Vice President Al Gore, the son of a Tennessee senator) were educated in Washington and only saw “home” in the summers. But in the age of jet travel and increased media attention, members of Congress are now generally expected to spend weekends at home and tend only to stay in the Capitol during the week.

That requires them to have two places to live. Though they make far more than the average American, it’s not enough for those who are not wealthy to maintain themselves in two homes. That leaves them with the choice of whether their main residence is going to be in their states or in Washington. Many opt for the former and bunk in Spartan style in shared apartments or even their offices during the week. Others, whether because of a desire to keep their families together or because of their spouse’s career, have their main home in the DC area and have a less substantial arrangement in their constituency. This is an especially tough decision for those who don’t hail from states that are in easy commuting distance from the capital.

There’s nothing immoral about either choice. As long as we expect these people to live in two places and pay them only enough to live decently in one, we can’t expect anything else. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not in favor of a pay increase for Congress (or at least not until they pass a balanced budget and stop spending our money like drunken sailors). But the question of residency is about symbolism not substance.

In the case of Roberts, it does look like he hasn’t actually lived in Kansas much but given that these days Congress is pretty much in continuous session (as opposed to previous eras when recesses were far longer), can his lack of a home there really be held against him in the absence of proof that he doesn’t perform adequate constituent service or speak up for the interests of his state? The same applies for Landrieu who at least can say she actually grew up in the place she stays in when in Louisiana.

We do have a right to expect our representatives and senators to retain a primary allegiance to their districts and states and resentment of those politicians who have largely abandoned their constituents and aligned themselves with lobbyists and party establishments deserve the criticism they get. Politicians should be smart enough to maintain a credible proof of residency in the places where they vote, a test that Roberts may have failed. But such scandals are strictly gotcha politics. There may be good reasons for citizens of Kansas and Louisiana to oust their senators but this isn’t one of them.

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