Several members of Congress who reside at the controversial “C Street House” in Washington, D.C., may be facing an ethics probe over their questionable living arrangements.
A group of Ohio ministers and an ethics watchdog group have asked the Internal Revenue Service and congressional ethics agencies to look into an arrangement whereby eight members of the House of Representatives and Senate each pay $950 a month to live in a spacious house on Capitol Hill.
The house is owned by a secretive Religious Right group called The Fellowship. The structure, as well as the Fellowship, came under increased scrutiny last year after several residents and former residents of the house were involved in sex scandals. (See “Behind the Green Door,” September 2009 Church & State.)
For years, the C Street house enjoyed tax status as a church – even though regular religious services are not held there, and the facility is not usually open to the public. Earlier this year, a group of ministers in Ohio calling themselves Clergy Voice asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the matter. The C Street house, the clergy argued, is really a boarding home for members of Congress, not a house of worship. They asserted that it should not qualify for tax exemption.
On March 29, Clergy Voice again wrote to the IRS, this time arguing that the members of Congress who live at the house (which includes maid service and meals) may be receiving subsidized housing, which, under tax laws, they would have to claim as income.
“We have surveyed comparable housing in the Capitol Hill area of Washington, D.C., and found that the $950 monthly fee reportedly paid by Members of Congress falls well below market rates,” wrote the members of Clergy Voice.
The group argues that the house provides lodging similar to what one would get in a furnished apartment or extended-stay hotel. It notes that even efficiency apartments in Washington’s Capitol Hill neighborhood can run $1,700 per month, and extended-stay hotels would charge $4,000-$5,000 per month.
“Our tax counsel has informed us that if C Street is indeed charging a below-market rate – in effect subsidizing the rent for the Members of Congress who live there – and the residents are not including its value in the taxable income – then the Members may have significant unreported income tax liabilities,” reads the letter.
At the same time, a separate complaint of a similar nature was filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) before the Senate Ethics Committee and the House Office of Congressional Ethics.
CREW asserts that the residents of the house – U.S. Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and John Ensign (R-Nev.) as well as U.S. Reps. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) and Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) – have paid below-market rent in violation of congressional gift rules.
House and Senate rules bar members of Congress from accepting lodging as a gift.
“Rarely does someone – particularly a member of Congress – receive something for nothing, so you can’t help but wonder exactly what these members may be doing in return for all of this largess,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW. “Of course, this is the reason the gift ban was enacted in the first place. This situation cries out for an immediate ethics inquiry.”
John Hart, a spokesman for Coburn, dismissed the complaints, telling The New York Times, “This is a witch hunt, not an ethics complaint.”