Congressional Perks

Congressional Perks

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES DINING ROOM. ZDZISLAW CZERMANSKI IMAGE

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES DINING ROOM. ZDZISLAW CZERMANSKI IMAGE

By Elliot Carter

In 1906 The Baltimore Sun published an article under the headline "WHY NEW CONGRESSMEN THINK WASHINGTON HEAVEN: Uncle Sam Builds Marble Palaces For Them And They Live Like Turks, Surrounded By The Comforts Of Paradise And Oriental Luxury." 

The article follows a hypothetical freshman congressman from “Podunk,” who arrives doe eyed at the Capitol and is astonished by the palatial luxuries in store for him. We follow the Podunk lawmaker through his encounters with the hush hush perks around the Capitol, and by the end of the Congressional session he has become a jaded member of the club.

The article is hilarious on two fronts. First, it pillories effete members of congress and their pampered luxury. We’re given colorful descriptions of the “exquisitely fitted bathrooms,” “creamy Turkish towels,” and delicate foods that are “unknown to the vulgar horde.”

But the deeper humor to the article is the author, who gets emotionally carried away with the horror of this “imperial disregard for expense.” He goes off the deep end with attack after impassioned attack on fairly non-controversial perks like elevators and free mineral water.

It is an amusing read. The full text is included below:

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A glimpse at the luxuries generously furnished to themselves by Congressmen out of the people’s funds may explain why Congressmen are so anxious to retain the jobs which pay them only $5,000 a year, and demand nearly as much in order to secure re-election. They receive more than $5,000, when comfort and luxury are considered. In no country in the world is the legislative body housed with such imperial disregard of expense. Congress is not satisfied with the accommodations that have served for nearly a century, and is building two marble palaces adjacent to the Capitol where prodigal expenditure is being made to insure the bodily comfort of the lawmakers.

Each of these palaces will cost about $7,000,000 furnished. The furniture has not yet been selected, but it will be of the finest and richest description. The buildings are of the most ornate and lasting construction, built largely by day labor under the direction of the superintendent of the Capitol who has every incentive to please only his masters, the Senate and House. These great expenditures are made by Congress without regard to other branches of government. The President, for example, has nothing to say for or against the expense, and could not stop it if he would. If Congress saw fit to make the pillars of these palaces of jasper and chaleadony, there would be no one to say it nay. Under the circumstances it is perhaps in order to stand aghast at the moderation of men who have the United States Treasury at their disposal. 

Until the new buildings are ready, Congressmen and Senators must struggle along under the hardships of life “under the dome,” as the Capitol is sometimes described. Of course, there is no comparison between the present conditions and those which will prevail when the palaces of legislation have been completed and stored with their treasures of Persian rugs, marble baths, statues, frosted globes, fountains, mural paintings, mahogany desks, leather couches, velvet carpets, and so on. But public men manage to extract a little comfort from their present surroundings, after all, assisted as they are by an army of flunkeys and a force of workmen who are forever altering, repairing, and improving the ancient Capitol.

The Congressmen from Podunk, or Smith’s Crossroads, is a little taken aback when he first experiences the pleasures of life under the dome. Tis is because he was not fully “onto the ropes.” After he is sworn in, he is mightily apt in learning about his perquisites. He discovers that the stationary room is open and that beautiful Christmas gifts may be purchased there for a trifle. He finds a credit of $125 at this place, ready to be blown in. He is obsequiously addressed by old, diplomatic servitors, who take his overcoat and hat and show him the way to the barber shop. There expert barbers greet him cordially, shave him, cut his rustic locks, give him an electric shampoo and a massage, and hand him over to the keeper of the baths. 

These baths are the joy of a Congressman serving his first term. He frequents them oftener than he ever dallied with the tub and tea kettle in the old home kitchen of a Saturday night. He finds the same kind of old servants ready to help him. He is assisted in divesting himself of his garments, and his faithful helper - an old darky who is carried on the rolls as a “laborer” - wraps him in a big, creamy Turkish towel. He proceeds along the warm marble floor up to the gigantic basin called a bath tub. It is a solid block of whitest marble, voluptuously carved into a bath, and fitted with gleaming silver faucet, through which gushes filtered hot or cold water. The attendant looks after the water supply, produces a fresh cake of expensive soap for the bather, and proceeds to initiate him.

The man from Podunk never experienced a bath like that before. He closes his eyes and imagines he is lord of a harem in Stamboul [sic]. The drowsy gurgle of the water, the expert manipulation of the attendant, the sweat of alter of roses, and the softest delight of fluffy blankets and towels on a downy couch lull him to sleep. He is never disturbed. He is immune from telephone, bell, or personal call. When he arouses himself he is rubbed down by a skilled masseur, who is paid as a “messenger,” and if he is a little languid and likes the sensation, an electric massage machine is applied to his sensitive shoulders and trunk. If his nails need polishing, a manicure is at his service. Then the attendant helps to dress him, and he returns via elevator to the hall of the House, ready to read the newspaper and write letters to constituents. The morning’s pleasures, from the moment the overcoat is removed by the servant until the luncheon hour, have not cost the Congressman a cent.

These baths, massage treatments, barber shops, &c.. are maintained at the expense of the people of the United States. There are about twenty exquisitely fitted bathrooms on the House side of the Capitol, each with its attendant ready to administer the poppy of repose to the weary statesman, without money and without price except for the occasional tip. There are Russian, Turkish, Roman and Swedish bathing arrangements, all administered by skilled attendants, who do nothing else and who are described officially as laborers, messengers or clerks. Some of these bath attendants are paid liberal salaries, but through the method adopted by Congress in paying them, it is impossible to tell what they get. One of the old-time attendants, who developed especial skill, and who recently died leaving a comfortable fortune, is supposed to have received $3,000 a year in salary and tips. The barber who succeeds in getting a job in the House barber shop is envied by his fellows. It is a poor year when he cannot make $2,000, working only six months. 

The member from Podunk, if he is wise, soon discovers that the House restaurant is a pleasant place, with its courteous waiters, who have served great men time out of mind. They treat the new member well, and if he is the right sort he soon finds delicate tid-bits on his plate which are unknown to the vulgar horde. The mysterious word goes down to the cook, and he outdoes himself in fashioning delicacies to suit the jaded palate of the Podunk statesman, whose previous experience has been confined largely to beans, cracklin’ bread, and pot-liquor - excellent nutrition in itself, but not arrogant in its pretensions. The member discovers also a method of buying choice Havanas a little under the regular rate. 

In his committee room the Podunk lawgiver reigns a little king. he sits at a solid mahogany desk with antique brass trimmings. His chair is big, roomy, and softly upholstered, either in leather [or]  velvet. On the walls of the finer rooms are paintings, the work of gifted artists brought to Washington especially for the purpose of adorning the walls with their art. Occasionally, when the especially fine painting is in need of a shelter, the Podunk Congressman finds a place for it on the walls of his committee room. Some of these paintings are the work of American masters, for which Congress paid as high as $25,000. They represent inspiring scenes from the national history, artfully calculated to arouse the smoldering fires of patriotism in the breast of the man from Podunk.

At home, in Podunk, the elected of his fellows is ready to drink out of a tin dipper, or even from the old oaken bucket. But at the Capitol he finds that Apollinaris, White Rock, Great Bear, and half a dozen other mineral waters are necessary. His secretary draws liberally on these supplies, which are paid for, of course, by the Treasury. They are also placed in a refrigerator, with plenty of ice, and during the hot months are consumed in enormous quantities. The “general public” discovered long ago that expensive mineral water was free at the Capitol. and many a thirsty hanger-on regales himself at the public expense. 

Sometimes the wife of the member from Podunk wishes to shine a little socially, at small expense. Then he works the graft of the Botanic Gardens. A government employee drives to the member’s house in a government wagon and deposits a load of choice cut flowers, potted plants, &c.. from the government gardens. After the dinner, Mrs. Podunk enhances her reputation for charity by sending the flowers to the poor. In the course of a winter influential legislators sometimes obtain thousands of dollars worth of flowers from the government without expending a cent. 

If the feast of good things should upset the Podunker, he languidly touches the bell at his desk, and sends his faithful colored messenger to the Sergeant-at-Arms, with a request for some medicine. The Sergeant-at-Arms keeps himself solid with the lawmakers by looking after their bodily health. In order to do this he must have a good assortment of drugs, and of course, the government foots the bill. There are pills galore, bromo seltzer, quinine, calomel, and a hundred other remedies prescribed by physicians. If a member should be seriously and suddenly ill, there is usually among his colleagues a practicing physician, who prescribes for him - at government cost.

All members of Congress enjoy the “courtesy” of the telegraph and telephone companies - that is, they can send messages free anywhere in the United States. It is a common rumor that telephones are furnished to members at their residences at reduced rates, and sometimes free. Of which are delivered at their homes and paid for by Uncle Sam. Occasionally a Senator takes a liking to a magazine and has it sent to his house. But the bill goes to the Capitol and is paid by the good-natured Sergeant-at-Arms. 

As the session draws to a close the Podunk statesman finds he has made a number of good friends among his colleagues, and it pains him to think that he must be separated from them for several months while he is plodding away in his dingy law office at Podunk. So a junket is arranged, either by special Pullman train or by special government steamer, for the purpose of “inspecting” the Wild West, or Puerto Rico, or the Panama Canal. These junketing trains and steamers are luxuriously furnished, and the Sergeant-at-Arms has charge of them, seeing that the members are treated to the best food, wines, cigars, &c.. that money will buy. 

When the new House and Senate palaces are completed there will be a better opportunity for the Sergeant-at-Arms to carry out his plans for the comfort of the lawmakers. He is cramped now, but then he will have everything handy. In the first place, each member will then have a stately office, fitted with the new mahogany furniture, costly rugs and paintings. There will be 410 of these offices in the House palace, and the Senate palace will contain ninety-nine suites of two rooms each. A Senator’s office will be 16x25 feet, with high ceilings, and his secretary will struggle along in a room 12x25 feet in size. The dining room in the Senate building will be thirty feet wide and sixty-five feet ling, two stories in height, with an ornate elliptical ceiling. The House dining room will be the same size, on the second floor, with a ceiling two stories high. This dining room will be finished in ornamental plaster, with paintings and sculpture. It will overlook the Library of Congress.

In each building will be a great rotunda, not as large as the Capitol rotunda, but more richly designed with columns of pure white marble, appropriate statuary, and mural decorations. Heavy marble intramural stairways will add richness to the effect, and twelve elevators will be provided.

From the House palace to the Capitol, and thence to the Senate palace, will be cut a subway, with a complete electric tramway system, supplied with luxurious little cars for the use of lawmakers. The careworn member from Podunk, if he wishes to escape the importunities of his constituents can descend in an elevator, step into an upholstered car, and be whisked across to the Capitol or to the Senate palace. There he can emerge in another elevator nearly a quarter of a mile away from his tormentors. The public at large will of course be excluded from the tramway. The subway will be richly tiled, ventilated, and warmed by the same power that propels the trams, and brilliantly lighted.

A new powerhouse, designed to ventilate, light, and heat the Capitol and the two legislative palaces is now being constructed several squares distant, at a cost of $2,000,000. All the appliances will be underground. With the new power house completed, the Capitol will be overhauled and a new ventilating system installed, which will heat every room independently. Automatic thermostats will keep the temperature constant, and in warm weather cool air will be forced into the myriad of rooms. The same system will be installed, of course, in the Senate and House buildings. 

When the weather becomes hot toward the end of a long session of Congress, Apollinaris lemonade in enormous quantities is prepared by the culinary department in either end of the Capitol. This beverage is prepared without regard to expense, and dispensed with a lavish hand. If a tired member wishes a stick in it, he has merely to turn to his little private cabinet, where rare old Bourbon, rye, Scotch, and various liquors are nestled. Sometimes plebeian beer is preferred, and it is always forthcoming. The sale of intoxicating liquor is prohibited both in the Senate and House wings, but this does not prevent a legislator from obtaining the inspiration necessary to make eloquent speeches and prepare wise laws for a billion-dollar nation.

Is it not a billion-dollar Congress? Shall the ox be muzzled that treads out the corn? Shall the patient ass of legislation be denied his bundle of thistles? Nay, nay, says the member from Podunk, as he votes unanimously for the little perquisites and salaries for servants who make life bearable for him in Washington. 

These are some of the reasons why Congressmen from Maine to California are fighting furiously to retain their pleasant upholstered seats in Congress.

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300 Years of History on the Georgetown Waterfront

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Civil War History at the National Building Museum