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Bring in the moving boxes: Congress is already packing up

Even before the election, retiring members started cleaning out. ‘When it’s done, it’s done,’ one says

Moving out is a biennial tradition in the House, complete with boxes, bubble wrap and hours of sorting through official papers. Above, trash piles up in the Rayburn House Office Building two years ago as departing members cleared out their offices.
Moving out is a biennial tradition in the House, complete with boxes, bubble wrap and hours of sorting through official papers. Above, trash piles up in the Rayburn House Office Building two years ago as departing members cleared out their offices. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

“It’s almost like a TV series that gets canceled without a series finale.”

That’s how Aaron Hunter, press secretary for California Democratic Rep. Susan A. Davis, describes the retirement process in the year of the coronavirus.

As the rest of the political world focused on the elections, retiring lawmakers and their staff have already started the tedious process of packing up sometimes decades’ worth of records and memorabilia.

Moving out has been complicated by the pandemic, which has taken away the fun parts of retirement — goodbye parties and farewell dinners — and given back logistical challenges in their stead.

“We all kind of had a sense of how the final year would go, and I don’t think anybody had pandemic on their bingo card,” Hunter said.

Aside from the voting and remote work that’s happened this year, “as far as Congress itself is concerned, it’s almost as if I retired eight months ago,” said New York Republican Rep. Peter T. King, who decided not to run for reelection.

Senators have until next year to pack up and vacate their offices, usually by midnight before the end of their term. The exact date is still under discussion, since Jan. 3, 2021, falls on a Sunday.

But House offices are already nearing their deadline to clear out — they are required to leave by Dec. 1. After that, they have the option of requesting space in the Departing Member Center in the Rayburn Building to work the remainder of the term.

The Office of the Chief Administrative Officer helps coordinate the process. Briefings for House members and staff, which cover “responsibilities related to closing D.C. and district office(s), finances and payroll, technology, and personal and professional transition,” are virtual this year, CAO spokesman Kyle Anderson said in an email.

Offices sort through papers, photographs and tchotchkes, often packing them up to donate to universities to archive. King said his records will go to the University of Notre Dame, where he went to law school.

“That means like 300 cartons of materials over 28 years,” he said. He’s been rifling through papers and sorting them on nights and weekends since February, saying it’s taken him through the highlights of his career.

New York Rep. Peter T. King speaks with reporters outside the Capitol in the fall of 2019, a few weeks before he announced his retirement. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

“It’s tedious but also it brings back all the memories of how it felt at that time, like getting a 3 o’clock in the morning phone call from Bill Clinton in Jerusalem, days before impeachment,” King said. (He voted against all impeachment charges in 1998.)

Staff packing up Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander’s office found a photo of him and Dolly Parton from his time as governor of Tennessee, said David Cleary, Alexander’s chief of staff.

Aides can look through records remotely online — but only up to a point, Hunter said. He’s going through material for Davis, who was first elected to the House in 2000. It’s “almost like a timeline of technology.”

“We’ve got news clips on VHS, and then they go to DVD, and then now they’re all digital,” he said. That applies to some historical memorabilia as well; the sorting unearthed Davis’ nameplate, used as part of the display board to track House votes on the floor before the chamber’s boards were renovated in 2009 and 2010.

Hunter also uncovered a memory from 2008: a press release issued after Davis’ hearing to review “don’t ask, don’t tell,” — the first since the policy was implemented — which got “The Daily Show” treatment. “Which was hilarious,” he said.

From his papers, King is holding on to a copy of the Good Friday Agreement. “I got just about every major person to sign it for me,” he said. “Bill Clinton, George Mitchell, Tony Blair, Ian Paisley.”

Health concerns have made the packing process more complicated as offices limit in-person work. “We’ve been rotating people in and out so there aren’t too many people in the office at one time,” Cleary said.

Soon incumbents defeated on Nov. 3 will join the retirees, boxing up the memories of their time in Congress. Some will mourn the closure they could have had in an ordinary year.

“It’s emotionally a lot harder because we don’t get the goodbye. We don’t get the big farewell party,” Cleary said.

Still, the unceremonious clearing out isn’t unfamiliar in Washington. King remembers visiting the White House in 1992 with other newly elected Republicans and meeting President George Bush a few weeks before Clinton was inaugurated.

“I remember walking and seeing all these cartons packed up in the hallway and all the photos taken off the wall. It looked like some guy being evicted,” he said. “And now I walk into my office and all I see is cartons and empty walls. When it’s done, it’s done.”

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