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House Democrat calls for halt to lawmakers sleeping in their offices

Rep. Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierBattle for Pentagon post in Biden Cabinet heats up Democratic Women's Caucus members split endorsements for House campaign chief Pentagon puts on show of force as questions circle on COVID-19 outbreak MORE (D-Calif.) is urging Capitol officials to review the safety of the long-running practice of lawmakers sleeping in their offices, arguing that it poses a public health risk during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter made public on Monday, Speier wrote to Architect of the Capitol J. Brett Blanton and attending physician Brian Monahan that lawmakers sleeping in offices should be permanently banned.

Speier pointed to reports that 17 construction workers in the Cannon House Office Building have tested positive for COVID-19 as evidence that lawmakers could have been exposed to the virus if they were sleeping in their offices in recent weeks.

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"If members slept in their offices during this time, they likely had a greater chance of exposure and exacerbated the public health risk of coronavirus," Speier wrote. "This is reason enough for the [Architect of the Capitol] to review its existing health and safety policies."

With the House expected to return to session as soon as next week after spending most of the last two months in recess, Speier argued that Capitol officials should review the practice to confirm whether it could pose a risk to the legislative complex.

"While the practice is de facto eliminated while the House is not in session, members are expected to return to Washington, D.C. in the coming weeks, raising the urgency of the problem," Speier wrote.

"As such, I urge a permanent ban on members sleeping in their offices. I hope the Architect of the Capitol, in conjunction with the House Physician, take steps to ameliorate this situation."

The number of lawmakers who sleep in their offices — and use communal facilities such as the House gym, which is currently closed, to shower — has complicated plans for how the House could return to session.

It's estimated that dozens of House members from both parties sleep in their offices to avoid spending money on expensive rent in the nation's capital. Lawmakers who sleep in their offices say that it's a way to lower expenses, especially if they also maintain a residence in a part of the country where the cost of living is equally or more expensive than Washington.

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Other lawmakers rent homes in the D.C. area, including many who split costs with colleagues-turned-roommates. There are no current senators known to sleep in their offices.  

The practice appears to be slightly more popular among Republicans, with top lawmakers including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyHouse GOP uses procedural tool to protest proxy voting The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Capital One - Tensions rise with Trump, Barr Watch live: McCarthy holds news briefing MORE (Calif.) and former Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanAmerican Greatness editor on how Trump's abandonment of populism affected 2020 election Paul Ryan calls for Trump to accept results: 'The election is over' Bottom line MORE (Wis.) among the known office-sleepers.

A number of Democrats have called for banning lawmakers from sleeping in their offices in recent years, but those efforts have not been fruitful to date.

House Democrats considered banning office-sleeping before taking over the majority in late 2018, but ultimately did not enact formal rule changes regarding the practice.

Several lawmakers, including Speier, also called for such a ban at the height of the Me Too movement in 2017, arguing that it puts office staff in an uncomfortable situation if they stumble upon the boss in a compromising position, such as still being in their pajamas.

"House offices were never intended to become homeless shelters for members and it is high time we stop tolerating the practice," Speier wrote.

But it's unclear where lawmakers who have regularly slept in their offices would go if the House returned to session for days at a time, requiring overnight stays in the District.

Hotels in Washington have been deemed an essential business during the pandemic and remain open, including multiple establishments on Capitol Hill.

McCarthy suggested on Monday that lawmakers would want to consider limiting the number of staff required to come to their offices.

"When you're dealing with living in offices, they're going to be in the office themselves I think you'd probably have to change the aspect of the number of staff that could come in. You're going to have to deal with much fewer staff, or not sure if you're going to have that many at all only in committee and being able to take care," McCarthy said during a Politico Playbook virtual event.

—Juliegrace Brufke contributed.