WASHINGTON — When Rep. Ben Butler of Massachusetts came to Washington, serving in Congress wasn't quite the glamorous experience that it's cracked up to be now.
The Capitol was isolated from the center of Washington, reachable only by a long ride over muddy streets. Most lawmakers lived in boarding houses, few even equipped with baths. And there was virtually no convenient place on Capitol Hill to eat. "I do not see how I can stay here," Butler wrote his wife plaintively.
That was in 1867. Since then, Congress has amassed a broad array of benefits and perquisites for senators and House members and their staffs that would make Butler less likely to yearn for home, and, some would say, that would allow him to live in the nation's capital in relatively fine style.
If the Massachusetts congressman were alive today, he would be able to enjoy a private health club for $100 a year, have his car hand-washed for $3, eat subsidized lunches in the House restaurant, buy cut-rate gift merchandise at the House stationery store and--until just two months ago--he could have gotten half-price $5 haircuts at the House barbershop. He also would get free flowers for his office--and free medical care.
Perhaps even more conspicuous, as one of 100 senators and 435 representatives, Butler would be catered to as few are outside of Congress. Capitol police regularly clear a path through the crowds when lawmakers stride down the hall. Special Members Only elevators are reserved for their use. Guards hold subway cars for them. In essence, they're the kings of the Hill.
Congressional perks are back in the spotlight, as public resentment over lawmakers' checking account overdrafts at the House bank spills over to other congressional trappings. For the last few days, newspaper and television reports alike have been filled with political gurus and voters complaining that such perquisites have become excessive and demanding that they be curbed.
"They have so many perks already and they write their own rules themselves," said Margaret Caufield, a 63-year-old Phoenix retiree who is one of millions of Americans incensed over the issue. She termed the latest scandal over the House bank "just the straw that broke the camel's back."
Already, Congress is abuzz with proposals to fix the system.
Rep. Michael Bilirakis (R-Fla.) has proposed legislation that would require lawmakers to pay for medical services that now are provided free by the Capitol's Office of the Attending Physician.
Rep. William J. Hughes (D-N.J.), would severely limit international travel.
Rep. Charles E. Bennett (D-Fla.) has introduced legislation that would abolish the discounts lawmakers receive--on everything from haircuts to briefcases--and end Congress' self-exemption from equal employment laws and other regulations. Bennett argues it's the only way to blunt public criticism of the institution.
"Perks just get you in trouble," he says.
Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa, a veteran Republican lawmaker, agrees. Noting that Americans have "a deep-seated antipathy" toward anything that smacks of special privileges for a few, Leach says lawmakers must act to change their image or risk bringing on the wrath of voters in November. "If Congress is seen as a privileged class, it is vulnerable," Leach declares.
To be sure, not everyone believes that Congress' perks are extraordinary. Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, argues that, by and large, lawmakers get fewer--and far less-generous--perks than middle managers at most large corporations. "It's one of the real myths," Mann asserts.
For example, most senior white-collar workers receive full health insurance and health club benefits, Mann notes, and many are eligible for discounts on meals in company cafeterias and on some gift items. Even the much-criticized franking privilege--which provides postage for official mail--isn't astonishing, he says. "When was the last time you paid for a letter you sent on company business?"
And in fairness, congressional staffers (and members of the press) are eligible for at least some of the same perks--from free parking and subsidized restaurants to special elevators. In some cases, the convenience is almost a necessity: Most parking spaces on Capitol Hill need to be reserved to accommodate lawmakers and staff members, for example. The issue is, should they be free?
Mann concedes that "the one thing that does smack of a perk" is the "general way members are looked after"--as if they were members of a special ruling class.
Norman Ornstein, a congressional aficionado at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, points out that the quality of many congressional perks is nothing to write home about--even if the postage is paid by the taxpayer. Haircuts in the congressional barbershops are anything but trendy, Ornstein notes, while Capitol food is decidedly mediocre.