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When Interior Decorating Questions Get Weird

Young's office boasts a gavel made from a walrus penis. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Young's office boasts a gavel made from a walrus penis. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Some members of Congress go their whole lives without being asked about their office decorations. Others have it foisted upon them.  

So it was when Roll Call and WAMU went to the Capitol to report on why members display particular pictures of parents, presidential memorabilia or patriotic nutcrackers. It just happened to be on the day The Washington Post published Ben Terris’ story about Rep. Aaron Schock’s “Downton Abbey”-inspired red Rayburn office digs . Would our reporting arouse suspicion? When we hatched the idea as part of our partnership this week for Kojo at the Capitol , we were unaware of the impending Terris trump tale of the Illinois Republican’s use of the firm Euro Trash to transform his government spot into an homage to Edwardian excess. But when we showed up once the piece was published and making waves, would offices assume we were digging for a scoop or, worse, simply following up, even though we’d been working on our story for some time? Would we find office decor inspired by “Justified” among the Kentucky delegation or perhaps “Breaking Bad” from the Land of Enchantment’s representatives in the Capitol?  

As it were, our congressional hosts were gracious and generous with their time and explanations regarding their personalized spaces.  

Freshman Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., went piece by piece through her down-river wooden ducks; red, white and blue model Ford Mustangs; gavels her husband (ex-Rep. John D. Dingell, D-Mich., the longest-serving member of Congress in history) used or were presented to him by speakers past (Nancy Pelosi, John McCormack); the made-in-Detroit Shinola throw on the anteroom’s couch, and a 2-foot-tall patriotic nutcracker standing in the corner.  

Afterward, she led us around the hall in the Cannon House Office Building to the set of suites occupied by her colleague, Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn. “They have ice cream,” she said, handing us off to Paulsen’s somewhat befuddled staff. Intrigued by the Schwan’s ice cream freezer in the lobby and the Wenonah canoe hanging in the congressman’s office, we scheduled a time to return to chat about the stuff of the Land of 10,000 Lakes. (We missed Paulsen on our return trip, alas. But the Schwan’s signature ice cream cookie was delicious.)  

Next stop was another Midwesterner, Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., a physicist who showed us photos of his parents (who met on Capitol Hill), the “Physicists’ Caucus” (Foster and ex-Reps. Rush D. Holt, D-N.J. and Vernon J. Ehlers, R-Mich.) and a souvenir graphite sealant from the world’s first nuclear reactor under Stagg Field at the University of Chicago. Foster, though, bemoaned what he couldn’t bring to the office.  

“My proudest accomplishments are too big to fit in an office,” he said. “If you’re flying in to the Western approach to O’Hare, if you look at the window, you’ll see these giant particle accelerator rings, miles in circumference. And so, one of those two giant rings actually contains one of the machines, the last of the giant machines, that Fermilab built.”  

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, decorates with the remains of much of the Last Frontier’s wildlife, and some of Africa’s. We’re pretty sure no other office has a Kodiak bear rug, framed by a portion of the Alaska Pipeline, Moose points, a Zebra skin and an Oosik gavel (that’s a walrus penis). The office “says a lot about the congressman’s personality,” Young’s press secretary, Matt Shuckerow, told us.  

Across the Capitol, some senators don’t relegate decorating to the inside of the office. Just look at North Carolina Republican Richard M. Burr’s Volkswagen Thing, parked on Delaware Avenue next to the Russell Senate Office Building and plastered with colleagues’ campaign stickers and jabs at political issues, such as Obamacare and climate change.  

Not every staff we approached wanted to kibbitz. When we approached Burr’s office, the first question was, “Are you following up on the Schock thing?” No, not really. And when we dropped in on Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, we were routed to a staffer — back in Arizona — who said no. Maybe they didn’t want the Democrat taking tough questions about why one of her Longworth office cacti was drooping. Cold weather? Too much watering? We never got the chance to ask.  

To hear more about what WAMU’s Michael Martinez and Roll Call found, tune in to 88.5, from noon to 2 p.m. on Feb. 5 for Kojo at the Capitol: In Partnership with Roll Call, WAMU’s Metro Connection and the Folger Shakespeare Library.  


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