State Journal-Register

Feb 05, 2001

Section: NEWS

Page: 1

Just gettin' by

Roommates, air mattresses .. . D.C. life 
hardly posh for Congress crowd


By DORI MEINERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
 WASHINGTON - U.S. Rep. John Shimkus let the lease expire on his one-bedroom,  $1,000-a-month apartment here last October, planning to invest in a house with three fellow House members.

But at the last minute one of them backed out.

Suddenly, the 42-year-old congressman from Collinsville found himself sleeping  on an air mattress in his congressional office.

"It's probably not the kind of life that people envision a member of Congress to be living," said Shimkus, who confessed to being a little embarrassed by his lack of a domicile.

While Shimkus' situation is temporary, it illustrates the difficulty many members of Congress have in setting up two homes - one in Washington and one in their congressional district.

Although House and Senate members receive $145,100 a year, it can be tough, especially for young families like Shimkus', to pay two mortgages. And, politicians don't have a lot of job security.

Most end up with living spaces here that are a far cry from the $2.85 million Washington home recently purchased by another member of Congress - newly elected U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., shares a narrow two-bedroom Capitol Hill row house with New York's other Democratic senator, Chuck Schumer, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. A fourth roommate, former U.S. Rep. Sam Gejdenson, D-Conn., recently lost his re-election bid and is moving out.

"It looks a lot like the kind of apartment you might have had when you were in college," Durbin said. "We have the best furniture that Goodwill has to offer."

He's not exaggerating.

The decor is a cross between "early dorm room" and "That '70s Show." Two beds, used by his colleagues, dominate the living room. The well-worn coffee table was one of the first items Durbin and his wife purchased after they were married more than three decades ago. A gold-velour sofa sits against one wall near bookshelves containing some all-but-extinct albums. The shade on the front window is held up with orange jumper cable clips.

Tired of sleeping on a sofa in the apartment he previously shared, Durbin demanded one of the two bedrooms when he moved into the house owned by Miller six years ago.

It's cheaper to share a place, especially when lawmakers spend long weekends and congressional recesses in their home states. Durbin says he's paying about half the $1,000-a-month rent that Shimkus had paid to live solo. Plus he enjoys the company.

"There are times this can be a very lonely existence .. . particularly if your wife is not with you," Durbin said. "It's just a great relief to be able to sit down in the evening in front of the TV and yak about all that's going on in Washington."

When Durbin first was elected to the House in 1982, he and his wife decided they wanted their children raised in Springfield. They still owe $54,000 on the mortgage for the four-bedroom, two-story home that he valued at $250,000 on his latest financial disclosure statement.

It's too big for them now, but he appreciates the space.

"I love to come home and barbecue in the backyard," Durbin said.

Affordability is not an obstacle for others in the Senate, sometimes referred to as the "Millionaire's Club."

U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., whose personal fortune is estimated to be as much as $50 million, has a home in suburban McLean, Va., a community described on one Realtor's Web site as "an enclave of the privileged."

Fitzgerald's wife and their 8-year-old son live with him there.

Fitzgerald, who refused to be interviewed for this article, also has a home in the affluent Chicago suburb of Inverness.

But most newcomers experience sticker shock, particularly if they're comparing Washington-area home prices to those in many parts of Illinois.

U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, said he rented four or five different apartments here, first as a House staffer and then as a newly elected House member in 1994. Four years ago, he finally decided to buy a one-bedroom, $100,000 condo near the Kennedy Center in Washington.

"I was thinking I was going to be here for a while and I might as well make an investment so I can get a return on my money when I leave Congress," said LaHood.

His wife moved here a year ago and works six blocks away from their condo. One adult son is living with them temporarily while he's volunteering with the Bush transition. Another son lives in the family's seven-bedroom home on Peoria's northwest side purchased in 1983 for $165,000.

"In Washington D.C., my (Peoria) home would be worth half a million dollars," LaHood said.

As for Shimkus, it's not his inherently frugal nature that's causing him to bed down in the hallowed halls of Congress each night.

He's made a down payment on a $450,000 townhouse currently under construction near the Potomac River waterfront. To help him make the mortgage payments, he plans to rent three of the four bedrooms - each with private baths - to other House members.

Shimkus realizes he's taking a risk but hopes it will turn out to be a good investment.

"I got tired of paying $1,000 a month with no equity for a place that you're in just a third of the year," Shimkus explained.

Meanwhile, he's joining a small group of adventurous colleagues who, over the years, have camped out in their offices, showering in the House gym and grabbing meals on the run. They include former U.S. Rep. Glenn Poshard, D-Marion, who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 1998.

Shimkus's wife and their three young sons live in a three-bedroom, $130,000 home in Collinsville, Ill.

The split-home life of a member of Congress can at times be "personally frustrating and disappointing," Shimkus said.

Last summer, he didn't get to see any of his 8-year-old's baseball games because they were scheduled during the week.

He's thought about moving them to Washington. However, with his frequent trips to Illinois, he said he wouldn't see them any more than he does now.

"The benefit is that it does keep your focus on your district and what people are really thinking, rather than what people say they're thinking," Shimkus said.

"It's a profession that is a no-win environment if you have a family," he said. "But there are a lot of benefits, too. Look, we went to the inaugural."