Hey, congressman, can I borrow some sugar?

By Thomas Burr

Published: March 23, 2014 10:04PM
Updated: March 23, 2014 01:01AM
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Thomas Burr and Matt Canham

Washington •

I haven’t asked Rep. Chris Stewart for a cup of sugar yet, but I’m keeping my options open.

Stewart, it turns out, is my neighbor.

I was chatting the other day with the Utah Republican, making small talk about this or that, when he asked me where I live in the nation’s capital. I answered.

“Really?” he responded. “I’m right around the corner.”

He’d just bought a house a block away.

Such is Washington.

Americans may see their member of Congress in person once in a while, perhaps even one of their senators on occasion, too (somehow more frequently in election years). In Washington, though, they’re ubiquitous. There are 535 members, even more if you count nonvoting members from U.S. territories, and they all have to live somewhere here, even if it’s only for four days a week.

I ran into Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., at the grocery store recently. I saw then-Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., at church. I’ve stumbled onto Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a few times near one of his favorite greasy-burger joints on Pennsylvania Avenue. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and I share an affinity for a Chinese food take-out spot.

It’s a little slice of life that most Americans don’t see, but that I’ve become used to over my nearly nine years spent inside the beltway. My goal with this column is to bring home to readers just that: a little bit more of that insider perspective, to go beyond the headline-grabbing news to show you what it’s like in the town that Congress built.

For one, this isn’t just a collection of monuments, but a home for more than 600,000 people, including your elected leaders.

Once upon a time, it was normal for members of Congress to get elected and put their roots down in Washington. They bought houses, raised their families and were part of the community. Sen. Orrin Hatch, for example, bought a house in the Virginia suburbs shortly after getting elected in 1977. His kids grew up there.

Sen. Mike Lee spent much of his childhood just outside Washington when his father, the late Rex Lee, was President Ronald Reagan’s Solicitor General.

At the start of our country, as Washington was just growing up itself, boarding houses sprouted up near the Capitol to house the newly elected members. With travel by horse and buggy the only way to get around, the new city became home to many of our first leaders. So many members actually died in office that the Congressional Cemetery was created to inter those who couldn’t be transported home to be buried.

Nowadays, though, Congress finds itself in session typically from Monday night through Thursday afternoon. Members zip in and out, spending time with their families and constituents on the weekends before coming back to vote. Their offspring stay at home.

But for those four days, the members are temporary Washingtonians.

Some buy houses, others rent apartments. Chaffetz still sleeps on a fold-out cot in his office. The Amazon series Alpha House is actually based on a real rowhouse that several Democrats share just off the House side of the Capitol.

Last summer, my wife and I hit the Congressional Women’s Softball Game, an annual charity game between female House and Senate members and the journalists who cover them. Afterwards, we found a nice patio table at an Italian restaurant on Capitol Hill.

We hadn’t even got through our salads when a few members of Congress walked by. Then a couple of senators. Then it was like congressional pins were everywhere.

Turns out, someone was hosting a fundraiser upstairs, and Republicans were streaming in and out the door. As we finished up our meals under an umbrella’s protection from a soft rain, the event came to a close.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., made his way out to his primer-gray, 1974 convertible Volkswagen “The Thing.” He pulled out a towel and wiped down the wet steering wheel and seats and drove off.

Not sure where he lives on Capitol Hill, but perhaps someday I’ll find out and ask to borrow a cup of sugar.

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Burr reports from Washington, D.C. For The Tribune. He can be reached at tburr@sltrib.com or via Twitter @thomaswburr.