Congressional Perks and Working Out the Body Politic

Published August 2001

MEMBERS of Congress have rallied around a cause that has united outraged representatives from both parties. The passion was evident in a recent hearing before the House Appropriations Committee, where Rep. Anne Northup (R-Ky.) informed a shocked committee of members that ”the fact is we have a very inferior gym.”

Northup was referring to the facility for members and their spouses that is something more than a ”gym.” The House members enjoy a public-financed athletic club with a gymnasium, Olympic-size pool, work-out rooms and other amenities.

Many members want an expanded facility to be more competitive with surrounding private clubs. Other members have made the club the latest ground for the on-going gender wars. Various female legislators allege that the House club is dominated by male members and that greater access is needed to ensure ”work-out parity.” This issue has been championed by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who first blew the whistle years ago on the male-domination of daily work-outs.

A formal ”committee on the gym” has now been created to study the issue. What is astonishing is that not a single member has suggested the most complete method of assuring that there is no discrimination in the use of a congressional athletic club: Get rid of the club.

Most Americans are shocked to learn that they fund such a club. Today, millions of Americans struggle to find jobs in what Washington euphemistically calls an ”economic downturn.” A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute found that a couple earning twice the poverty limit of $17,463 would still fall below any definition of a decent standard of living. Forty-one percent of the families below this ”family-budget line” listed ”food” as their greatest concern. Congress, however, asks that these same families pitch in to support its athletic club.

In a nation where the average household earns $40,816 a year, Members of Congress receive an annual salary of $141,300. Most of these members are in the very top percentages of wealth in the country. California’s congressional delegation alone has at least 22 millionaires, including Sen. Boxer. They live in a city with affordable athletic clubs on every corner. Yet, the citizens pay for this perk and will soon pay for an additional club for their staff members.

It appears that more buffed members are better members. Rep. Zach Wemp (R-Tenn.), vice chairman of the ”Wellness Center Committee,” insists that this is not a ”perk” because ”healthy workers, mentally and physically are productive workers.” Yet, if this is the case, why doesn’t Congress require such ”healthy” conditions for all workers or pass a subsidy for businesses to help make everyone a bit more ”productive”?

This is not what the Framers meant by strengthening the ”body politic.” Certainly, the elimination of the members’ health club may well lead to unsightly bulge in our leaders. Yet, Benjamin Franklin in his best condition was a good 50 pounds overweight and James Madison (at 5’4” and 100 pounds) was underweight by the same degree. The lack of a buffed body did not prevent one from a lifetime of inventions and the other from drafting the Constitution.

It seems likely that our members will join together to approve the expansion of the House athletic club and the creation of a similar club for staff members. The same members who have resisted child-care and health-care subsidies then will have the greater opportunity to work off their angst on some state-of-the-art, public subsidized equipment.

This is not to suggest that I expect members to live like their constituents. I doubt many of these members could tolerate the living conditions of most Americans. However, Congress may want to hold another hearing before approving the expansion of its athletic club. They may want to call a few single parents struggling at the ”family-budget line” on how they stay ”productive.” They may learn of such aerobic activities as running with two toddlers under each arm to day care while fully dressed for work. It isn’t a Jane Fonda workout but it might produce not just better-looking but better-informed legislators.