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Search for Speakers’ Effects Moves Slowly

As Republicans celebrate 10 years in power in the House, at least one effort that began shortly after they took the majority hasn’t made it very far in the ensuing years: reclaiming historical and in some cases extremely valuable items that have found their way into the collections of former Speakers.

As the GOP readied a decade ago to take the reins in the House for the first time in 40 years, officials from Boston College phoned the new leadership for guidance on how to return the late Speaker Tip O’Neill’s (D-Mass.) office furniture to Congress. At the time, nobody seemed to know how to proceed, and the ensuing questions triggered a broad inquiry by the House Clerk’s office into exactly what had been carted away over the years and whether Congress ultimately had claim to it.

But the effort to recover dozens of items has languished, after years awaiting direction from then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and now-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). Although Clerk Jeff Trandahl (then deputy Clerk) was able to find and catalogue most, if not all, of the missing items and visit the libraries and universities housing them, the process pretty well ended there, according to interviews with the curators and library directors responsible for the artifacts and others familiar with the hunt.

“It was my understanding that it is, in fact, a dead issue,” said Don Carleton of the University of Texas Center for American History, which operates the Sam Rayburn Library and Museum.

A spokesman for the House Administration Committee, which oversees the Clerk’s office, declined to comment for this story. Asked about the issue more than a year ago, Hastert spokesman John Feehery said “things that were taken out of the House” should be returned though an “informal process.” As of this month he said only that there was “no news on the Speaker’s collections.”

The articles at the Rayburn library are considered to be by far the most valuable of those in the collections of former Speakers found during Trandahl’s two-year audit. They include the last marble Speaker’s rostrum; a chandelier given to Congress by President Theodore Roosevelt; and a Grecian urn, a gift to the Texas Democrat from the Greek government when he was Speaker, worth as much as $3 million.

Except for the urn, which is stored in protective casing and available for viewing only upon request, artifacts from Rayburn’s tenure as Speaker remain on display in the library and museum in Bonham, Texas, according to Carleton. “We are a public institution so the public still has access to the collection,” he said, adding the museum “saved and preserved a number of valuable items that probably would not have survived.”

Beyond just the sheer value of the items, in many respects the situation with the Rayburn library is not typical. Before Rayburn’s tenure as Speaker ended in 1963, many Members of the House flew to the Lone Star State to witness the opening of his museum.

“The items that are in the Sam Rayburn Library and Museum in Bonham were taken there in full view of the House of Representatives,” Carleton said.

The public unveiling of Rayburn’s museum and its contents set it apart from most, if not all, of the former Speakers’ collections. And at least partly for that reason, Hastert’s office tentatively agreed in 1999 to allow the University of Texas to retain control over the items. Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas) brokered that arrangement when she served on the House Administration Committee.

“What was so important was the huge amount of documentation,” Granger said in an interview. “I was given a huge stack of documents all explaining what was there, signoffs by the Architect of the Capitol, a video tape of the opening of the library, proof of how all those [items got there]. They had certification on each of the items that it truly was what it said it was.

“It was not the same situation across the board,” she explained.

The status of other former Speakers’ collections was — and remains — less clear.

The tentative agreement reached between Hastert’s office and the Rayburn library emphasized that the items could remain in the collection so long as they were displayed publically, a threshold not met by most of the libraries and universities housing House legacy items.

For example, the late Speaker John McCormack (D-Mass.), Rayburn’s successor, opened an office at Boston University after he left the House, but many of the items reportedly have been used since to outfit various administration buildings on campus. University officials weren’t available for comment on the whereabouts of McCormack’s collection.

Before 1993, former Speakers were permitted to open offices with objects such as furniture on loan. (Congress then sunsetted the law and provided that funds for such offices would dry up by fall 1998.) A special provision had been made in the statute for McCormack’s legacy items to be transferred to the university. Infuriated by the House’s move decades later to claim or reclaim custody of those items — legally if not physically — the university wrote then-Clerk Robin Carle in 1998 accusing the House of trying to “negate” a previous agreement, an effort BU deemed “highly inappropriate.” It’s unclear whether either side has initiated contact in recent years.

The dispute with McCormack’s collection is hardly atypical.

With the possible exception of the late Speaker Carl Albert (D-Okla.), the custody of items taken by every Speaker from Rayburn until Gingrich, who didn’t take anything, has been or remains in question.

Of course, the call from Boston College about O’Neill’s legacy items that a decade ago provoked the inquiry by then-House Oversight Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) and the Clerk’s office ended any controversy about his collection before it began. All of the items on loan to O’Neill’s collection, including a rostrum chair and a grandfather clock, were returned to Congress. The process was marred, however, when two French crystal chandeliers were nearly destroyed in transit because they had been poorly packed.

Much like Rayburn and McCormack’s, the collections of former Speakers Jim Wright (D-Texas) and Tom Foley (D-Wash.) remain well outside the Capitol. After the Clerk’s inquiry first began in the mid-1990s, the two former leaders, along with current Members acting on their behalf, reportedly lobbied to suspend efforts to bring their collections back to the House.

Their situations are also indicative of how the issue of former Speakers’ legacy items eludes cut-and-dry solutions.

Wright and Foley, like many of their predecessors as Speaker, both set up taxpayer-funded offices after their tenures ended and brought with them Congressional furniture and other objects. Albert’s was the last of such offices to close when the taxpayer subsidy ended in 1998. Prior to that, Wright brought the contents of his office to Texas Christian University, where he now teaches. Foley’s office closed when he became ambassador to Japan in 1997.

In an interview, Wright said a bookcase and some furniture comprise a replica of his office as Speaker and are all on display at TCU.

“It was my understanding that it was a common practice, and it was expected of Speakers,” he said.

“I told them if they wanted it back that would be fine with me,” Wright added of his communications with the Clerk’s office a few years ago. “It doesn’t matter to me.”

Foley’s items, including some 40 pieces of furniture that outfitted his Capitol office, are now housed in a temperature-controlled storage facility at the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University. According to the institute’s coordinator, Margie Kimball, an effort is currently under way to catalogue the furniture and other items and make sure it is being adequately protected.

The institute’s director, Ed Weber, said someone from the Clerk’s office visited in early 2002 to ensure the objects were being stored properly. “We came through with flying colors as far as I know,” Weber said. “It helped us so I can instruct the staff that the vast majority of what we have belongs to Congress and the American people and not to us.”

Some of the items have subsequently been loaned to the federal courthouse named after Foley. Weber said the institute plans to create a full replica of Foley’s Capitol office with the furniture in storage, but in the meantime Foley’s desk and chair are arranged so conference attendees can sit in it and weld the gavel. “It’s impressive, and the people coming to the institute just love it,” Weber said. “We love to sit international visitors at his desk and give them his gavel. They just eat it up.”

The institute recognizes, however, that Congressional leaders have the right to request that the furniture of a former Speaker be brought back for their use. “We’re happy to abide by all that,” Weber said. “We just consider it an honor that we can have it here onsite.”

But it’s unclear when, if ever, the House will seek the return of any of the items in the former Speaker’s collections. There was some talk a couple years ago of showcasing some of the objects in the Capitol Visitor Center, but those discussions seem to have subsided along with efforts to procure their return. Ultimately it’s up to Hastert and possibly his successors to determine how hard the House wants to push to get the items back, or whether ensuring their good keeping is enough to preserve the legacy of the institution.

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