The Real Life of a Congressman

Anna Giaritelli

Anna Giaritelli, a native Long Islander, graduated from Asbury University in 2011 with a B.A. in journalism. In 2010, she interned at the online desk of the Washington Examiner and studied at the Washington Journalism Center on Capitol Hill. Giaritelli has been published by a handful of publications, including the Oregonian, Equine Journal and Examiner.com.

Congressman Peter DeFazio starts his day like most Americans, with a commute to the office; only today he is going on a business trip. He parks his car at the airport and goes through security like every other passenger, taking off his shoes and placing his briefcase on the security belt. The only difference is that his journey to the U.S. Capitol has only just begun and will take 12 hours from the time he leaves his house in Springfield, Ore. to the time he will arrive in Washington, DC for House votes that evening.

DeFazio will then fly back home to the West Coast on Thursday or Friday. His schedule, as one of Oregon’s five congressional representatives and the country’s 435, keeps him out of town for approximately 30 weeks of the year.

But DeFazio is no stranger to the amount of commitment his job entails. In November 2010, DeFazio was elected to a 13th term in the state’s fourth district.  He is Oregon’s second longest serving congressman to Willis Hawley, who finished his 13 terms in 1933 and even further behind John Dingell, D-Michigan, who has served 29 terms.

His experience in office has earned him the position of the senior member and dean of Oregon’s congressional delegation. In addition to his long work history, DeFazio has racked up a few million air miles from commuting across the country for a quarter of a century.

“According to my calculations, I’ve been on a one-way transcontinental airplane flight an average of once every six days for the last 25 years,” Rep. DeFazio explained.

Taxpayers should not shudder at the cost entailed with transporting politicians back and forth across the country though.

“House of Congress rules prohibit members from flying on private planes except in very limited circumstances,” explained Penny Dodge, chief of staff for DeFazio.

However, the three million miles that DeFazio has earned just with United Airlines, has placed him in the 1K program, which provides complimentary upgrades with more space to work in and does not cost taxpayers extra.

Still, the misconceptions among the public about the lifestyles of politicians is far from reality.

DeFazio recalled once meeting a woman who asked him if he had flown in on a G5 or corporate jet. He told her, ‘Actually Sky West and United.’ She was shocked to find out that he flies commercial and goes through the same things that everyone else does to get back and forth.

The congressman rarely gets a chance to sleep on the long flight. His hope is that by the time he gets to the other side of the country, he has considerably lightened his briefcase (and that United recycles.)

DeFazio could not recall the last time he traveled with anybody else, much less a chauffer, body guard, or staff member. He parks his car at the airport and flies to Washington. If he lands at Dulles International (30 minutes outside DC), he’ll grab a cab into the city or bum a ride with a fellow congressman to save money.

But DeFazio has gone above and beyond the norm to save money.

“A crummy studio apartment on Capitol Hill cost more than my mortgage in Oregon and I live in a nice house on a couple acres of land,” said DeFazio.

He had spent the first two decades as a Congressman, trying to make hotels, apartments, and even his DC office work as a home away from home.

“I decided a boat might be a good option. I got a 33-foot powerboat for $16,500 on the eastern shore of Maryland. I’m docked in the public marina and I’m waterfront. I could not afford an apartment with a view of the Washington Monument but now I do,” said DeFazio. “The inside of the boat has 200-225 square feet of living space. It’s like a small apartment but with a big deck where I can sit out.”

DeFazio has owned the boat for five years and has found it to be perfectly suitable for his living needs. The marina’s overnight restrictions limit boaters to staying aboard to four nights, which fits the congressman’s lifestyle to a tee.

While the boat apartments seem to be practical, DeFazio only mentioned two others who live this way. Former Representative Jim Marshall of Georgia, lived in his boat while in DC and Joe Donnelly of Indiana has become the most recent newcomer to this lifestyle.

“It’s funny; the misconception is that we’re living the high and mighty life while there are a lot of people who scramble around to find a decent, inexpensive [living] option. There are unique opportunities to the job though,” said DeFazio, who was meeting in the White House later that day to discuss the present trade policies with a small group, including President Obama.

Among other opportunities DeFazio has had, he was able to campaign at Autzen Stadium during the Oregon Ducks football season. He was able to attend two games, deeming it “part work and a lot of pleasure,” as a 1977 alumnus of the University of Oregon Master of Arts program.

“The custom is that you stand out on the bridge that goes over a stream where a lot of people walk to the game.  I would stand there with a bunch of supporters with signs and shake hands with people coming into the stadium. Then I go wander around the parking lot and crash peoples tailgaters, if they’re friendly. After everyone went into the game, I’d go in and watch the game,” said DeFazio.

DeFazio’s connection to Oregon’s college students is not just for votes in the re-election every two years. In fact, DeFazio has not taken a congressional pay raise and has used his pay raises to fund scholarships at five southwestern Oregon community colleges. As of December 2012, he will have contributed $349,631 of after-tax salary towards 197 scholarships and national debt reduction.

Right now his scholarships are concentrated on aiding dislocated workers that are retraining at community college for the first year or two, just to make a bachelor’s degree more affordable.

“This can be a very frustrating job and one of the most gratifying things I find is the people I have met or who have written or called me, to say they received a scholarship. One of my first recipients had not even finished high school and was working as a part time janitor when he started back at school. It was tough for him because he had a family but he got one of my scholarships and it wasn’t all that much money but it made the critical difference in a term when he was thinking he could not do it. In less than 4 years he had gone from not having a high school diploma to getting a masters degree and becoming the superintendent of schools in my district. It’s stories like that that make this job very gratifying,” said DeFazio.

As for the finer things in life, the Congressman noted where to find the best cup of coffee while in DC. “The best coffee I get here comes from the little kitchenette in the office with my coffee machine. I can make better coffee here and that’s what I do first thing in the morning.”