Where Congressmen Get Buff

Anthony Weiner’s semi-nude photos from the House gym cast a new spotlight on the hidden-away, spartan, and exclusive congressional facility where members like Rahm Emanuel and Al Gore have made deals and wrangled votes—as well as sculpted six-packs. Patricia Murphy reports.

06.16.11 4:39 AM ET

When photos leaked this week of Anthony Weiner photographing himself in the buff before mirrors in the members-only House gym, one question was inescapable:  There’s a members-only House gym?

Yes, there is, and if you’re not a member of Congress don’t bother trying to get in. The ultra-exclusive  “Wellness Center” behind two gray steel doors in the sub-basement of the Rayburn House Office Building across from the Capitol is one of the few places in the world that allows only current and former members of Congress to enter. Once they do, the results can be a deal done, a powerful friendship struck, a six-pack sculpted—or a scandal unleashed with a towel around its waist and a BlackBerry in hand.

Rahm Emanuel frequented the place before going off to run Chicago. Many former House members return even after they’ve gotten bigger, better jobs. President George H.W. Bush kept his locker at the gym into his White House days. Al Gore often returned, as vice president, for pickup basketball games—and to whip votes for Bill Clinton’s priorities. One particularly disastrous game sent Gore from the gym to the hospital with a torn Achilles tendon.

As with many places in Washington, the allure of the gym is not its luxury (or lack thereof), but its exclusivity. No staff, no lobbyists, no reporters, and certainly no tourists. And the fascination grows every time the usually forgotten spot makes it into the headlines because of the famous people who work out there, including the embattled Rep. Weiner.

The gym’s origins are somewhat shadowy. It was slipped into the plans for the Rayburn Building without public disclosure when construction began in 1962. The building, and the gym, opened for business three years later. The fitness center has served as the backdrop for congressional dramas ever since.

Its showers were the scene of a now-famous incident involving Emanuel, who House staffers say was notorious during his days in the House and White House for using the gym to buttonhole sweaty House members about important matters when they least expected it, usually after his own 5:30 a.m. workouts.

Is that Bill Clinton? It wouldn't be surprising. Weiner has close ties to the Clinton clan: He's married to Huma Abedin, a longtime aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Bill even officiated at their July, 2010 nuptials.

Disgraced former Rep. Eric Massa (remember his tickle fights with staff?) used the press frenzy surrounding his scandal to recount a tale of Emanuel cornering him about a vote in the gym’s showers while both were naked. 

Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican, had his own Rahm encounter just outside of the gym, when Emanuel gave him the silent treatment and raised a middle finger after Issa threatened to begin investigating the Obama administration.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, a former House member still known to use the gym, turned the tables on Emanuel two years ago, when he used his workouts there to lobby the Obama chief of staff to get behind the candidacy of Schumer’s pick for New York’s vacant Senate seat, Kirsten Gillibrand, then a House member.

While most members use the gym for workouts and a little business, more than 30 currently use it to shower after they’ve spent the night in their House offices. In February, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Government called for an ethics investigation into the group of more than 30 lawmakers, who say they’d rather shower at the gym than fork over rent money in Washington.

If the case of Dick Armey is any guide, the members may want to start looking at the classifieds for apartments. In the 1980s, House members told Armey, then a junior representative, to stop treating the House gym like a motel and get a place of his own. Armey not only showered there, he used to set up a cot and sleep there as well.

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Members say the gym has changed little since then. An effort to renovate the facility during Nancy Pelosi’s speakership failed when Pelosi made it clear she had other, higher priorities for the $8 million it would cost.

The gym’s budget is now covered by the $240 in annual dues from members, and whatever Congress appropriates for its operations, but finding details of the budget is feels a little like searching for the nuclear codes. Calls and emails to the House Appropriations Committee were referred to the House Administration Committee, which in turn suggested a call (two unreturned so far) to the Architect of the Capitol, which oversees all House buildings.

Even trying to actually locate the gym is not easy. A walk down a winding hallway one floor below the basement level of the Rayburn Building leads to an unmarked entryway, which can only be accessed with a key card or by being buzzed in by a gym staff member.

Why all the secrecy is unclear, say members who work out in the windowless, relatively spartan space. They say it’s more YMCA than Sports Club L.A., with the type of equipment you’d find in any local gym, including treadmills and free weights. There are also a 50-year-old lap pool and a smaller-than regulation basketball court with hoops on each end.

The famously fit Rep. Aaron Schock (R-IL) describes the House gym as being like any other, and maybe a little bit less than that. “The gym that I belong to in Peoria is far better equipped,” says Schock, who recently was named the “Fittest Member of Congress” by Men’s Health Magazine. “I’m grateful for the place to work out, but it is by no means state-of-the-art.”

And in the words of Democratic Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont, “It’s just a gym!”

Schock says that while the facility could use a makeover, members do what they can to make the place fit their needs as it is. In the absence of trainers, about a dozen House members, including Rep. Paul Ryan, former NFL player Heath Shuler, and occasionally, Rep. Weiner, began morning screenings of DVDs of P90X, the hardcore cross-training workout. 

Lacking a wall-mounted TV, they propped a set on a cart on the basketball court so everyone could see the video. When they realized they did not have enough free weights in the gym to accommodate more than a few people, members brought in their own. 

With the new publicity brought by Weinergate—including an ABC World News report about U.S. taxpayers “subsidizing” gym memberships—members say they don’t expect a renovation any time soon.

Schock says that’s too bad.  “I actually would argue that there aren’t enough members that go to the gym.”