Political penny pinchers: Minnesota’s congressional delegation tries to cut Washington living expenses

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Rep. Keith Ellison’s first weeks in Washington were more sticker shock at first sight than love at first sight.

“I was paying $1,600 a month in rent. That’s way too much,” he said.

And that was the price for living in someone’s basement.

Ellison isn’t the only Minnesota freshman who’s feeling the financial burn of D.C .living. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Reps. Tim Walz and Michele Bachmann say they were blown away by real estate prices in Washington, where one-bedroom apartments start at $250,000 and rent averages at $1,100 a month.

All of them say they can’t afford to buy a place in D.C., nor do they want to; Minnesota is their first and only home, and they’re happy to pay both rent and a mortgage if it means preserving their roots there.

In the meantime, all four are doing what they can to save some coin. For his part, Ellison, whose net worth ranged from $2,007 to $35,000 in 2006, has since moved into a studio apartment, saving $3,600 a year.

With four kids and one in college, “that’s a big deal and I need it,” he said.

Rep. Keith Ellison
Rep. Keith Ellison

In 2006, it cost about $80,000 a year to live in the DC metro area, while the cost of living hovered around half that in Minneapolis.

Cost cutting
Certainly, members of Congress make plenty of money. The salary for rank-and-file members is $169,300 this year, and that sum is annually adjusted to match the cost of living in Washington. (According to the U.S. Census Bureau [PDF], the median household income in the United States was $48,201 in 2006.)

While no member of Minnesota’s freshman class is poor — Klobuchar, Ellison and Bachmann all have law degrees, while Walz was a high school teacher — they’re not independently wealthy like former Sens. Rudy Boschwitz or Mark Dayton, whose net worth was nearly $4 million in 2003.

That means most people employed in Washington, from congressional interns to the most senior members of Congress, have to pinch pennies to make ends meet. Take two of D.C.’s most notorious roommates, Senate Democratic leaders Dick Durbin of Illinois and Charles Schumer of New York. They share a bachelor pad with Reps. George Miller of California and Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts to save some cash. There, conversations focus less on legislation and more on who ate the last of the cereal (it’s usually Schumer, according to The New York Times).

The Minnesota delegation has also cultivated their own money saving techniques for living in the city. Like Ellison, Walz moved to an efficiency apartment after sharing a place with another member of Congress that cost as much as his mortgage in Minnesota and provided about a quarter of the space.

“It was a hole in the wall,” he said.

Klobuchar’s net worth ranged from $326,046 to $1,394,000 in 2006. While that range may make her one of the wealthier members of Minnesota’s delegation, that hasn’t stopped her from trimming costs, like joining Costco.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
Sen. Amy Klobuchar

Her money saving efforts didn’t stop there. On a recent trip back to Minnesota, Klobuchar found an old set of plastic dishes — a good alternative to the new dishes she’d expected to buy for the house she’s about to rent.

“I brought them back in my suitcase,” she said, “and my chief of staff took some, too.”

Just like college
High-priced real estate isn’t the only trial that comes along with living in Washington. Most freshmen members are living away from their families for the first time, and making it home only for a few days over the weekend.

Walz says he tries to take flights that allow him to tuck his kids in on Thursday nights and drop-off his 7-year-old daughter at school before returning to Washington on Monday mornings.

Ellison says his new life in Washington is a lot like his first days in college.

“It’s like going back to the dorm,” he said, recounting a laundry fiasco in his new digs. “I opened up the machine, and there were clumps of Tide in there that never dissolved. My wife had to explain it to me over the phone. Now I use the liquid stuff.”

The members aren’t complaining, however. Walz says that all the annoyances that go along with being a member of Congress are “just part of the job.” And Ellison says he’s not necessarily advocating for a pay raise.

“Members of Congress should be paid fairly, or else it becomes a millionaire’s club. Then the politics of our country reflect that,” he said. “I’m not hurting. We’re doing just fine.”

Catharine Richert reports on developments in Congress, agriculture issues and other topics. She can be reached at crichert [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Karl Bremer on 05/11/2008 - 08:52 am.

    Housing costs in Washington may be double what they are in Minnesota. But let’s remember that members of Congress earn $169,300 a year, plus a healthy expense account for travel. That’s certainly more than double the salary of the average Minnesotan. And some members collect other paychecks as well. Michele Bachmann, for example, collects federal farm subsidy checks for their family farm in Wisconsin, and is part owner of her family’s medical clinic in Lake Elmo. So I’m not so sure “sticker shock” at housing costs for members of Congress is really high on my list of concerns these days, when people are sleeping on sidewalk heat grates within view of our nation’s capitol.

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