Suitcase Blues for Pols

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), a perennial conservative target for his quaint belief in such outmoded foreign policy concepts as treaties, alliances, and nuclear-non-proliferation efforts involving nations other than Iran, has a new problem that’s actually an old problem for Members of Congress. He lives near his day-job in Washington, DC, having sold his house “back home in Indiana” in 1977, shortly after he was first elected to the Senate.

There are legal issues involving Lugar’s actual residency in Indiana (which do not look to be all that serious), and then, of course, the political issues, particularly at a time when voters are not especially enamored of congressional lifers, however distinguished.

The “doesn’t live here anymore” attack line on Members with little or no real physical connection to their states or districts has a long history. Sometimes it seems to work, as when then-House-Speaker Tom Foley of Washington State lost his seat in 1994 after a campaign in which his opponent ran ads (if I remember correctly) featuring pix of a post office box that was Foley’s “residence” in his district. Other times it doesn’t, as when one of the late Sen. Robert Byrd’s Republican opponents ran an ad showing the Taj Mahal and Byrd’s metro-DC home and asked: “What do these two places have in common? Neither one is in West Virginia.”

Someone very much alive and still in the news, Ricky Santorum, ran afoul of the residency issue just before his failed Senate re-election campaign of 2006, when it turned out his kids were enrolled in a Pennsylania-taxpayer-financed “Cyber Charter” school even though they lived full-time in the Hunt Country of Virginia.

The potential political damage associated with residency in DC (along with abbreviated voting schedules that make a Tuesday-Thursday work week in Congress feasible most of the time) has led a growing number of House members to bunk down in their offices and refuse to live in the Emerald City at all.

I don’t want to get all sympathy-for-the-devil on you here, but for the less wealthy members of Congress, and particularly House members who are perpetually running for re-election, life is not easy.

For every freshman House member sleeping on a cot in the Longworth Building, however, there are many, particularly in the Senate, who live like King Farouk. When I worked for Sam Nunn, I vividly remember getting a message from John Warner’s office to track down my boss in Georgia and get him to call the wealthy Virginian ASAP. To Nunn’s cramped little pied a terre in Atlanta, I bore a list of possible Warner stopping points that included his Watergate apartment, some house in Northern Virginia, some weekend house somewhere else, and then a hunting lodge.

It doesn’t appear Lugar is quite that loaded.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.