Sometimes it’s the little things that make an office feel more like home.
“First and foremost,” a staff member for a sophomore House Member says, “we’re looking for an office that has elevators that go all the way up to our floor.”
And now, with those pesky elections out of the way, lawmakers can focus on improving their homes away from home in the biennial office lottery.
While everyone wants more and better space, many junior Members may not get all that they want. On the Senate side, lawmakers choose their suites in a pure seniority-based order. But the House has a much more convoluted method of doling out work space.
First, House Members are divided into seven groups of seniority. Members who have served eight or more terms sit at the top of the food chain, whereas those who have completed only one term sit second to last, just above Members-elect.
Lawmakers who wish to change offices take part in a lottery with others in their seniority group. As Members decide to move, their office space enters the pool of available rooms. Should someone decide not to move, the next person moves up a spot.
The first segment of this process began Nov. 8 and will continue through this week. Two-term Members who opt for new space make their choices Nov. 17, and Members-elect will then get to pick over the remains. Their offices will typically be both small and very far away from the chamber.
Several slices of prime real estate are available this year. The best office up for grabs is almost certainly retiring Rep. Billy Tauzin’s (R-La.). Twenty-six years of service has certain perks, including a fantastic office: Room 2183 in the Rayburn Building.
Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson practically gloated about his boss’s digs. “We’ve got a prime office. We’ve got two balconies, one that overlooks the Botanical Gardens and one that looks out on the Washington Monument.”
The Rayburn Building is considered by most to be the best office building for House Members. Pam Mueller, press secretary for another retiring Member, Rep. Jerry Kleczka (D-Wis.), says that the size of the Rayburn offices is a great selling point.
“The people coming in are astounded by the size,” she says. “Where the wall usually is, it extends out about another 20 feet.”
In addition to their size, some Rayburn offices also offer key amenities, such as built-in file cabinets, kitchenettes and stunning views of the Capitol.
As the date to make changes grows closer, more and more Representatives are sending their staffs out on scouting missions. The goal is to visit all the offices that might become available in order to make a quick decision when the time to choose comes.
“They come by in droves,” says Johnson when asked about prospective new residents checking out the office. “They’re like vultures circling. We’ve had 30 to 40 other Members’ offices come by for a look-see.”
And they are invariably impressed by the balconies. “Everyone looks in on the office and oohs and aahs. Everyone looks in the office and says, ‘This is our first choice.’ I just say to them, ‘Get in line.’”
Many offices would settle for space less extravagant than Tauzin’s. Many stuck on the fifth floor of the Cannon Building almost all say that anywhere but there would be better. Not only do some of the elevators not reach the top floor, oftentimes creating long waits for both staffers and constituents, but the offices are also typically cramped and among the most distant.
When asked what the driving factor would be in making an office switch, staffers almost universally cry out: “Size.”
Ryan Loskarn, press secretary for Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), says he “would expect a little more square footage is probably at the top of the list” when it comes to deciding whether to move.
Drew Hammill in Florida Rep. Kendrick Meek’s office says the Democratic Congressman has “expressed interest” in changing offices. “If you came by and looked at our office, you could figure out why. It’s pretty small.” Furthermore, he says, the view is terrible. “Some offices have a nice outward view; our view is of the granite and concrete in the middle courtyard of Longworth.”
There are reasons besides an increase in office space for House Members to move. One longtime office manager says that in addition to the “change of pace” a new office offers, “it’s an opportunity to clean house. … You get rid of things you don’t need and file things you do need.”
Simplicity and cost are other key factors in deciding whether to move. “If it’s going to be too problematic, you don’t want to do it. There are also costs to the move; we don’t want to do it if it will be too expensive.”
The Senate’s allocation of office space is less random. There’s no lottery within groupings: Seniority is the sole decider of who gets their pick of office.
Susan Irby, spokeswoman for the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, explains that “rooms of retiring Senators will be identified, then the Rules Committee has a process where they notify Members who first get the highest seniority level. They’re given a period of time to make a decision whether or not they’ll move,” and they either make the move or do not, based on the office space they have been offered.
Once the established Senators make their choices, incoming freshmen get their pick of what is left. Even the freshmen are not all considered equal, however; if “they were a Congressman or a governor or had otherwise distinguished themselves, they would have higher seniority,” Irby says.
As Senators-elect begin to move into Washington, D.C., they first set up in temporary spaces, and after they are sworn in they move to “swing spaces.” While these swing spaces are individual offices of about 1,000 square feet, Senators and their staffs still have to share phones, faxes, copiers and other equipment.
Of course, senior Senators get an extra office perk: a coveted hideaway. Approximately 75 of these private offices are scattered around the Senate side of the Capitol and only become available when someone retires. So with veteran Sens. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Don Nickles (R-Okla.), John Breaux (D-La.) and Bob Graham (D-Fla.) retiring, there is sure to be a hideaway shuffle.
When the opportunity arrives, not every second-term lawmaker desires to change offices, however. Aaron Johnson in Rep. Marilyn Musgrave’s (R-Colo.) office says they are “pretty happy with the offices we have.”
Of course, there is one factor that could change the Representative’s mind: “More space.”