While crises mount abroad and at home, some candidates this year are betting that a big issue for voters will be free gym use and subsidized haircuts on Capitol Hill.
Hoping to tap some of the virulent anti-Washington rage coursing through the electorate, Democratic candidates in Republican-leaning House districts have proposed nearly identical plans to revoke a slew of Capitol Hill perks, such as the taxpayer-funded gym, salon and barbershop services for lawmakers.
They have vowed to stop giving Congress members cars that are leased or rented at taxpayer expense, health care benefits not available to the general public and taxpayer-funded junkets overseas.
Although Republicans dismissed these pledges as gimmicks, campaign strategists say the tactic just might work.
“Members of Congress in both parties are viewed as incompetent and beneficiaries of special favors. That’s a bad combination,” said Gregory R. Valliere, chief political strategist at the independent Potomac Research Group in Washington. “Accordingly, many candidates will campaign against special perks, and it might make a difference for several Democrats running in close races.”
Mr. Valliere said the surprise primary defeat last month of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican ousted in part because his constituents thought he had become too much of a Washington insider, was a wake-up call for lawmakers from both parties. They witnessed the risk of being perceived by voters as “not one of us,” he said.
The anti-Washington anger among voters crosses party lines and taints the entire federal government. A Gallup poll this week found that Americans’ confidence in all three branches of the federal government had plummeted to new lows of 30 percent for the Supreme Court, 29 percent for the presidency and 7 percent for Congress.
The idea that Congress benefits from special perks got new life again this week when it was discovered that the House Ethics Committee quietly altered the reporting requirement for members who take trips abroad financed by private groups. Lawmakers at first said the change was technical, but House Ethics Committee Chairman Michael K. Conaway, Texas Republican, on Thursday announced plans to go back to the original standard.