4 Misconceptions About Congress

Do members of Congress get free health insurance? And do they all live in Washington, D.C.? We’re exploring some common myths about Congress in the latest episode of Misconceptions.
U.S. Capitol in Washington.
U.S. Capitol in Washington. / Stefan Zaklin/GettyImages

On paper, the basic structure and function of the United States Congress is pretty straightforward. It’s a two-parter: The House of Representatives has 435ish members, divided among the states based mostly on population. The Senate has 100 members, two to each state regardless of population. And it’s the legislative branch, meaning it makes laws.

In practice, though, Congress is really complicated—and sometimes it’s hard to tell fact from an assumption you made based on the headline of an article you never read. Fear not: On the latest episode of Misconceptions, host Justin Dodd is shedding light on some common congressional myths and misunderstandings, from the process of vetoing a veto to the truth about all those purported Capitol Hill perks.

Take, for example, the idea that all congresspeople live in or around Washington, D.C. The exact number of days Congress spends in session varies from year to year. It also varies between the House and the Senate. According to Ballotpedia, the average number of days the Senate was in session annually from 2001 to 2022 was 168. In the House, it was 151 days. And the schedule is all over the place: Members usually get weekends off, plus some random free days or even whole weeks throughout the year.

Plenty of them do rent or buy homes in Washington, D.C., and head back to their home states whenever they have a long enough break between session days. But it largely depends on where you’re from and how much expendable income you have. D.C. housing isn’t cheap.

Congresspeople whose home states aren’t too far from the capital might just commute each day they’re in session. Joe Biden, for one, earned the nickname “Amtrak Joe” by taking a 90-minute train ride from Delaware to D.C. and back again during his 36 years in the Senate. He didn’t live in the capital until his vice presidency.

Other members forgo long commutes or second homes in favor of just sleeping in their offices—which happens way more often than you’d think. At this point, it’s sort of a congressional tradition. When North Carolina Republican Ted Budd arrived in the House in 2017, one of the first things he did was install a Murphy bed in his office. As he told NPR in 2020, “It has a Tempur-Pedic mattress and [is] very comfortable, but it’s completely invisible during the day and just sleeps like normal.”

Unsurprisingly, not everyone is a fan of this custom. Some congresspeople think it’s inappropriate or just kind of gross. Other members consider it a misappropriation of taxpayer funds—after all, you’re technically getting free housing.

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