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Down on ‘Main Street’: House Republicans reveal changes in Longworth basement

Connection center offers one-stop agency shopping, evidence of a ‘functional and operational’ House, they say

House Administration Chairman Bryan Steil joins Chief Administrative Officer Catherine Szpindor ahead of a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday for the new “Agency Connection Center” in the Longworth Building.
House Administration Chairman Bryan Steil joins Chief Administrative Officer Catherine Szpindor ahead of a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday for the new “Agency Connection Center” in the Longworth Building. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Plenty of ink has been spilled about Republicans’ chaotic reign in the House during the 118th Congress, but Bryan Steil doesn’t subscribe to that narrative.

Just a little over a year ago, the House was closed to most constituents, part of what he describes as the “disaster” the GOP inherited from former Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Unwinding that kind of “bureaucratic red tape” has been his mission since his party took back the majority, the Wisconsin Republican said.

“You only have to go back 15 months, and a constituent was not allowed to walk in and meet with a member of Congress without an invitation. I find that offensive,” said Steil, who chairs the House Administration Committee. Like many of his Republican colleagues, he opposed the restrictions that Democrats put in place on the Capitol campus during the COVID-19 pandemic, and he touts their reversal as an early win that set the tone. 

“I think we’ve actually done a great job from day one of taking back control of the House and making it functional and operational,” he said.

For another example, Steil said, look no further than the basement of the Longworth House Office Building, where on Tuesday he and government officials cut the ribbon on what they’re calling the Agency Connection Center.

The cluster of roughly a dozen offices and conference rooms will serve as a hub for congressional staffers seeking answers from executive and legislative branch agencies. 

“It was empty, and it looked like a great space to do something,” said House Chief Administrative Officer Catherine Szpindor, noting that it used to serve as a majority conference space in previous Congresses. “We moved the walls, renovated the whole thing, put in all new carpet. And it just has made such a difference. I couldn’t believe this was the same place.”

Bringing a “human element” to congressional casework is the key, according to Steil. “When you’re reaching out to a federal agency on behalf of somebody that’s having a problem, far too often it can be an automated response. There can be a lack of human interaction,” Steil said ahead of the ribbon-cutting. “This is going to put a face to the name of the agency — direct contact for members or staff to be able to interact with that respective agency.”

Got a constituent that needs an emergency passport? The State Department will have a representative on hand. Having trouble with someone’s federal pension check? The Office of Personnel Management will be on-site.

The Postal Service, the Social Security Administration, the Congressional Research Service and the Government Accountability Office will also have outposts in the center, located diagonally across from the House Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which is poised to lose its funding this fiscal year if Republican appropriators get their way.

The new center is part of a larger “Main Street” initiative in Longworth, led by House Administration Committee Republicans with the help of the architect of the Capitol and the chief administrative officer. It’s aimed at centralizing services and making a “one-stop shop” for members and staff. Some of the project entails relocating existing offices. Several of the agencies already had liaisons on the Hill, for example, but they were spread throughout House buildings. 

“The idea of having a one-stop shop is appealing, when currently so many essential and related resources are spread out far apart from one another between the different House office buildings and the Capitol,” said Michael Suchecki, a Democratic House staffer.

Another aspect of the project is to liven up the drab hallways of the bustling basement, home to a Dunkin’ Donuts, where Hill denizens converge to network over coffee, and the largest cafeteria on the House side of the Capitol complex.

Last year, the House Administration Committee put up a hall-length mural featuring a collection of images from the Capitol, as well as current and former lawmakers, including Kevin McCarthy. The likeness of the deposed former speaker stares out steely-eyed, superimposed on the Capitol Dome and looming large over a space Republicans say is dedicated to improving the functionality of government.

A mural featuring former Speaker Kevin McCarthy is seen in the basement of the Longworth Building on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

“We have all sorts of folks represented there. It gives a flavor of the work that goes on in the Capitol,” Steil said when asked about McCarthy’s continued presence in the hall. “Over time, we’ll continue to update the photos there. But I think on the whole, visitors really like the opportunity to come down, see the photos and have a much more welcoming space.”

Another House Democratic aide, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press, said some staffers chuckled about McCarthy’s prominent placement around the time he was ousted in October. They questioned whether he’d be covered up.

But ultimately, “adding things like murals or more comfortable seating is not only a nice thing for staff but for visitors as well,” the staffer said. “This, after all, is the People’s House, and to see people on the walls, like some of the clerks and other staff that contribute to making this place work better, is never a bad thing.”

The physical changes to the Capitol campus are not confined to Longworth. Oklahoma Republican Rep. Stephanie Bice, who chairs the House Administration’s Subcommittee on Modernization, unveiled a new staff collaboration space in the Cannon House Office Building this January. Efforts like those may seem small, but Steil said they are part of a larger goal.

“The collaboration space is a great step forward and an opportunity for staff from different offices to be able to sit down and come together and try to work on problems. And we’ll continue to make improvements,” Steil said.

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