The Office Gangs of Capitol Hill

As some lawmakers prepare to leave Congress, others are eager—very eager—to lay claim to their turf.

In the final days of the 113th Congress, two breeds of House staffers remain: the packers and the scouts.

All across Capitol Hill, aides-turned-moving crews are boxing up decades worth of artifacts, awards, and mementoes as their bosses prepare to end their political tenures. At the same time, roving gangs of staffers, often accompanied by their bosses, are staking out turf for the next Congress, laying claim to prime office space—until a more-senior band of aides comes along to kick them out.

The Rayburn House Office Building, home to many of the lower chamber's most-veteran members, is replete with stripped-bare walls, bubble wrap, and moving carts. Some offices, days away from moving out, are making do with handwritten signs where a member's nameplate once announced the office's occupant.

Staff for Rep. John Dingell, the House's longest-serving member, has been preparing to empty the retiring lawmaker's office for nearly a year. The Dean of the House, who's been in Congress since 1955, has been around so long he was sworn in by then-Speaker Sam Rayburn, for whom the building is named. One staffer who works for another outgoing member said Dingell has three full storage units prepared to take the decades worth of stuff he collected during his House service.

And it isn't necessarily all paperwork and photos of dignitaries—one Dingell aide said a taxidermist is coming to help take care of his many hunting trophies, including antelope, deer, and boar.

Other outgoing members have obstacles of their own. Rep. Spencer Bachus has switched offices only twice in his 20-plus years in Congress, thanks to an expansive, hard-to-move model train collection that fills his office's shelves. That, too, will need to be packed up.

Some offices have unearthed long-lost artifacts. Rep. Ed Pastor found a cassette tape of "Tip O'Neill's Favorite Boston/Irish Stories & Tunes." He tried to give it away, but no one on his staff had a cassette player.

Congressional staffers in some offices have been coming to work in recent weeks clad in blue jeans and T-shirts, more prepared to lug around boxes and take down pictures than to guide dignitaries around the Capitol. "It's been a nice mixture of chaos and reminiscence and a good feeling of throwing things we probably should have thrown out years ago," said Lee Brooks, press secretary for Rep. Tom Petri.

But underlings aren't doing all the work. Some members, like Pastor, have had to come in on weekends just to get through the packing. Rep. Jim Moran was spotted shuffling down the hall, all by himself, lugging a heavy cardboard box.

Outgoing members have until the end of the week to be out of their offices, and they'll spend the last few months of their time in office in small cubicles in the Rayburn basement, with only a phone, a computer, and two chairs. "It's an ignominious end to a 30-year career," joked Ed McDonald, chief of staff for Rep. Howard Coble. "Nice to see you, goodbye, thanks for playing. We don't care where you go, but you're not staying here."

And as the departing representatives spend their final days packaging years' worth of stuff, long-serving veterans have been making the rounds looking for potential office upgrades. The legislators want everything from better views to expanded floor space to a more convenient location.

Members are thrown into lotteries with colleagues of equal seniority, starting with those who have served seven or more terms. As they work down the ranks, more and more offices get snatched up—until many of the freshmen are inevitably forced to trudge to their new digs on the dreaded fifth floor of the Cannon House Office Building.

Staffers for the longest-serving outgoing members said anywhere from 20 to "dozens" of fellow members and aides have come by to scout their offices. In some cases, the results have been comical.

Within a span of 24 hours, four different members held a claim—however briefly—to Coble's Capitol-facing, first-floor Rayburn office. After Rep. Jim Cooper released his initial claim on the office, it fell back into play—but then seniority trumped the lottery results. Rep. John Shimkus decided he would take the office. "His staff's coming by, they're all excited they're going to get this office," McDonald said. "They're looking around where they're going to sit and everything."

Their exhilaration was short-lived. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who joined Congress two years before Shimkus, came by with an entourage and "kicked Shimkus out." Then, soon after she left, Rep. Bobby Rush came by with an entourage of his own and trumped Lee's claim. Rush, who joined Congress two years before Lee, called his Democratic colleague to deliver the bad news himself.

Rep. Jerry McNerney faced similar heartbreak. He was slated to take over Rep. Carolyn McCarthy's office, but it was taken by Rep. Dan Lipinski when the member whose office Lipinski was hoping to claim decided not to move. "It's like a gift exchange," said McCarthy staffer Aaron Alexin.

For outgoing members, watching the vultures circle on their longtime digs isn't as unseemly as it might appear. "It's part of being here. You know that people are looking at your office," said Dan Scandling, chief of staff to retiring Rep. Frank Wolf. "It's OK. It's a very friendly transition."

Of course, that process is a little more difficult for members who lost reelection rather than opted to retire. Dianne Luensmann, communications director for Rep. Nick Rahall, admitted that the moving-out process has been tinged with sadness after his November defeat—as well as more physically difficult, given the limited time to prepare. "It's packing up a legacy, and it takes great pains," she said. "It's quite a task."

Perhaps no one has it worse than Rep. Dave Brat, who was sworn in last week to fill the end of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's term. While his staff has just started moving into Cantor's old Cannon office, the space has already been claimed by Rep. Alan Grayson—and Brat's staff will have to vacate in a matter of weeks. One Brat staffer was relieved to learn his office will not be up for grabs on a yearly basis.

In many cases, the offices upgrades are simply a matter of the rich getting richer. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who enjoyed a 1,500-square foot-office in Cannon, is moving next door into Wolf's palatial, high-ceilinged office—one that spreads out over nearly 1,700 square feet (some House offices are as small as 841 square feet).

Shimkus, after missing out on Coble's office, is taking Rep. Tom Latham's second-floor Rayburn office as a consolation prize. The much-coveted side-by-side offices of Reps. Henry Waxman and George Miller, both of which boast views of the Capitol, were claimed by Reps. Collin Peterson and Ken Calvert, respectively. Rep. Pete Visclosky nabbed Dingell's spacious office.

Meanwhile, most of the incoming freshmen will be consigned to Cannon and Longworth. Rep.-elect Steve Knight earned the first lottery pick. He chose a first-floor Longworth office that, while among the smallest, offers great accessibility and a south-facing view of the Spirit of Justice Park. Knight also cited the fact that the office was eligible for upgrades. "It's going to be almost a brand-new office when we walk in," he said.

Most freshmen were just hoping to avoid Cannon's fifth floor. It's not close to anything, boasts no particularly spacious offices—and many of Cannon's elevators stop a floor below. On the plus side, it's notably quiet.

Rep.-elect John Ratcliffe, seen browsing the halls of Cannon, said he expected to check out about a dozen offices to prepare for his selection. With the No. 4 pick among freshmen, Rep.-elect David Rouzer said, "I might actually be able to get what I want!"

And Rep.-elect Debbie Dingell, who is succeeding her husband in Congress, said her late pick meant she would likely end up in Cannon, but she noted the building's extensive history. "Everybody moaned and groaned so badly, I thought I was going to see terrible offices, and I haven't seen a terrible office," she said. She also plans to keep some artifacts from her predecessor. "I want to take my husband's desk, which is the desk that the original Social Security bill was helped on up, and Medicare and civil rights." The big game trophies, though, will have to go. "Those animal heads are gone," she said.