KNOXVILLE, TENN. U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp said he was paying market rate by living in a $1.1 million Capitol Hill town house for $600 a month because he was just one of eight congressmen staying in the three-story structure.
He also said Monday there was nothing unethical about living in the home maintained by a secretive religious organization known alternately as the "Fellowship" or the "Foundation." The stately, red-brick house located two blocks from the Capitol is owned by the C Street Center, a sister organization of the "Fellowship."
"I think frankly it's much ado about nothing," Wamp said of his Washington living arrangement first reported by The Associated Press on Sunday. The AP tried repeatedly to contact Wamp for comment on the story but was unsuccessful.
Wamp, a Chattanooga Republican, told The Knoxville News Sentinel on Monday the religious group was nondenominational, had no requirements of residents in the town house and did not lobby Congress.
All eight residents of the house, who each get a separate room upstairs for sleeping but share an undisclosed number of bathrooms, include Democrats and Republicans who have a strong Christian faith, Wamp said. When one resident leaves, the remaining members choose a replacement with whom they are comfortable, he said.
The eight include Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas.
Wamp said he had been paying $600 a month rent since moving into the town house in 1997, and thought the price was reasonable for the accommodations.
OK with watchdog
Common Cause, a national group that monitors ethics in Congress, sided with Wamp's contention that the rent was within market rates.
"There is no indication from this (AP) story that there is a specific lobby agenda from the (religious) group," said Celia Wexler of Common Cause. "We kind of checked around with people who lived on Capitol Hill and that $600 a month didn't sound to them like an incredibly bargain rate" for a room in a house.
Wamp said he did not sign an annual lease and did not know who set the rent level.
The "Fellowship" brings together world leaders and elected officials through religion, and sponsors the annual National Prayer Breakfast that routinely attracts the sitting president of the United States. The group leaves its name off the program, even though it spent $924,373 to sponsor the event in 2001, bringing in $606,292 in proceeds, according to the most recent available IRS records. It also pays travel expenses for foreign officials to attend.
Few current and former lawmakers who have lived in the C Street house want to comment on the arrangement.
"We feel like it's nobody's business but our own," said former Rep. Steve Largent, R-Okla., who lived there before leaving Congress to run unsuccessfully for governor in his home state last year.
Besides Brownback, Wamp's known roommates at the town house are Reps. Bart Stupak, D-Mich.; Jim DeMint, R-S.C.; Mike Doyle, D-Pa.; and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev. Wamp said two other members of Congress lived there, but declined to identify them.
Wamp said he and his group didn't speak in public about their living arrangement because representatives discussing their faith often were criticized for mixing public duties and religious discussion.
"There are no requirements whatsoever to live here," Wamp said.