‘Downton’ comes to Washington with congressman Schock’s schlock

America Letter: Republican’s office makeover raises eyebrows in $4tn budget week

The corridors and coffee docks of Capitol Hill were abuzz this week with talk of excessive spending. No, it wasn't the $4 trillion (€3.5 trillion) budget of tax hikes for the rich and tax breaks for everyone else that President Barack Obama sent to Congress on Tuesday.

It wasn't the $534 billion (€465 billion) sought for the basic US defence budget, some $250 billion more than it was before the September 11th attacks and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nope, it wasn't the additional $51 billion in "overseas contingency operations" either. That's bureaucratic speak for funding war, including $5.3 billion to fight the Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. Nor was it the $441 billion in pay and other personnel costs that is proposed for current and former members of the military, including the cost of veteran affairs, military housing allowances and tax benefits.

What got everyone talking was the spending by a Republican congressman from Illinois on his new congressional office.

The fun began with an article in the Washington Post on Monday. A reporter from the paper stopped by the Capitol Hill office of Republican congressman Aaron Schock, the handsome all-American representative of Illinois's 18th congressional district, once Abe Lincoln's stomping ground.

The reporter noted that the newly refurbished outer office had an over-the-top bright red-all-over interior. There was a gold-colour wall sconce with black candles and a bull’s-eye mirror with an eagle on top.

"It's actually based off the red room in Downton Abbey," said Schock's receptionist, referring to the British television period drama.

The woman responsible for the redesign introduced herself to Post reporter Ben Terris as Annie Brahler, an interior decorator whose company is called Euro Trash. She had met Schock in his home district. He liked her work so much he asked her to decorate his old office in another congressional building and this one after November's elections.

Strenuous PR efforts

She gave Terris a guided tour, causing a crisis in the office. You see, Schock himself hadn’t yet seen the office, the reporter was told. Despite his most strenuous PR efforts, Schock’s spokesman Benjamin Cole couldn’t stop the publication of the photographs.

"Washington has always been more Veep than House of Cards," wrote Terris in his article poking fun at the congressman's flamboyant sense of style (funded by the public purse).

Schock is one of America’s more modern politicians and his office is consistent with his inimitable flash style. First elected in 2009 at the age of 27, he is the third youngest member of Congress.

A man who likes to keep in good shape, he showed off his washboard stomach on the cover of Men's Health in a 2011 article called "The Ripped Representative". The magazine described him as "the fittest man in Congress".

He embraces social media and regularly posts photos of himself on Instagram. His snaps include photos of him meeting the pope, leaping over a glacier in Argentina, parasailing in the Andes, completing a water survival course at West Point and staring at a penguin.

“Deal with it, America: Peoria’s congressman is fabulous,” wrote a columnist for a newspaper in his home district in Illinois.

"I have never been an old crusty white guy," Schock told ABC television reporter Jeff Zeleny, explaining his open lifestyle when doorstepped on Capitol Hill and asked to explain his "Downton" office.

Inspiration

He learned about the inspiration for the design only in the newspaper, he said, and admitted never having seen an episode. Explaining the negative responses he gets to his high social media profile, the four-term congressman quoted a pop star's lyric: "As Taylor Swift said, haters are gonna hate."

Schock defended spending the bones of $100,000 on his office in Washington and Illinois. He had an allocated budget to pay for his offices and to hire staff.Aside from the cracks and plain curiosity about the garishness of Schock’s office, the issue of his refurbishment has turned serious.

The increased scrutiny cost his spokesman Cole his job on Thursday after some of his older Facebook posts were found to include racially loaded comments. One of his posts suggested that a mosque be built at the White House for President Obama.

The liberal watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics has filed an official complaint against Schock and called for an ethics investigation, claiming he may have received an improper gift as his staff had told the Post that his designer was working for free.

Schock’s ostentatiousness has brought unwelcome stress, much like Lord Grantham’s relentless battle to hold on to Downton.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent