- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley believes in wearing layers to cut down on heating costs.

Rep. Eric Massa, New York Democrat, has installed videoconferencing equipment in both his Washington and upstate home district offices so he can have face-to-face conversations with constituents without racking up costly travel expenses.

And what does Rep. Barney Frank, head of the House Financial Services Committee that oversees the nation’s housing and financial services sectors, do to cut costs during these hard economic times? Well, that’s none of your business.

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Voters typically don’t equate Congress with frugality, and lawmakers are aware of the overspending stigma, especially during this time of economic crisis and ever-expanding billion-dollar bailouts and budgets. A Gallup poll last month revealed a 31 percent approval rating for Capitol Hill lawmakers, making them about half as popular as President Obama.

“People are so skeptical of Washington, D.C.,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican. “They’re fed up because they talk the talk but they don’t walk the walk. You can be in a committee meeting criticizing somebody for misuse of funds and then jet off for tea in Europe.”

Mr. Chaffetz said he is running his office the way he ran his campaign — cheaply — not allowing his staff to buy any meals for constituents in town, for example. To save money personally, he sleeps in his Capitol Hill office during the week.

“Don’t get me wrong, we make a very handsome salary in the United States Congress, but it’s expensive, especially in Washington, D.C.,” said Mr. Chaffetz, estimating that his use of a cot saves his family about $1,500 a month. “I ran my campaign debt-free; I refuse to take on any consumer debt.”

Not everyone in Congress has managed to maintain such a frugal reputation. A high-profile eight-day junket to Italy by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and six other House Democrats drew fire last month for sending the wrong message days after the stimulus was passed to save and create jobs. Though the cost of the taxpayer-funded trip has not yet been disclosed, media reports estimated the travel expense alone to be in the $200,000 range.

A spokesman for the speaker brushed aside criticism of the trip, stressing Italy’s important role as a NATO ally in the war on terrorism. He noted that the group ended the trip visiting American forces in Afghanistan.

Mr. Grassley, a Republican who spends two days a week at his farm, said he shuts off his engine and lets his car coast the final four-tenths of a mile into his garage, saving money on fuel.

“When I’m at home on my farm in Iowa — assuming my wife isn’t there because she won’t let me do this — I put on two layers of clothing and keep my thermostat at 60 degrees,” he said. “And when my wife’s not at the farm [in the summer] I don’t use the air conditioning — I use the ceiling fan.”

Mr. Grassley also is a fierce critic of federal vehicles he sees parked outside the Capitol with their engines running. He chided his colleagues about it in a speech on the Senate floor and even wrote a letter to then-President Bush about the matter.

“It just makes me mad that Senate leaders can’t set a good example,” he said of the vehicles, which are used as part of security details for top leaders of both parties in both chambers.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, Virginia Democrat, carpools to work each morning with staff members from his nearby district to save money.

“Since I got to Congress, I can count on one hand how often I’ve driven,” said Mr. Connolly, who previously relied on a car as chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

The freshman, who describes himself as “pretty parsimonious,” said he returned about $20,000 a year in taxpayer dollars in his 14 years serving on the county board. He also said he cuts back wherever he sees an opportunity.

“For example, we’re giving out certificates to people who get something printed in the congressional record,” he said. “We’re putting it in a nice folder, but we’re no longer putting it on plaques because they’re expensive.”

Mr. Connolly paid $250 out of his own pocket for his desk at his district office as well as for the Oriental rug, saying he was “not comfortable” using taxpayer funds for such expenses during the economic downturn.

Another local congressman, Rep. Frank Kratovil, also commutes to and from his district in Maryland’s Eastern Shore with members of his staff.

“As a freshman member of Congress — I guess we’re going on almost two months now — we haven’t really had an opportunity to start spending money,” said Kevin Lawlor, a spokesman for the Democrat. Mr. Kratovil, a fiscally conservative Blue Dog, is also aided by his experience as a state’s attorney managing the prosecutor’s office budget, Mr. Lawlor added.

Some lawmakers preferred not to disclose what, if anything, they were doing to cut back.

Asked what measures he was taking to save, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat, said, “I’ve got nothing for you.”

Mr. Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, told a reporter, “None of your business.”

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