Washington confronts world turned upside down Capital workers show dismay, jubilation ELECTION 1994

November 10, 1994|By Ellen Gamerman and Nelson Schwartz | Ellen Gamerman and Nelson Schwartz,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Washington workers emerged from their apartment buildings and townhouses yesterday morning to find their political landscape radically altered and their city shellshocked.

As details of the Republican electoral sweep the night before spread through the nation's capital, emotions ranged from dismay to jubilation. The place was undergoing a dramatic change, some said, and little but the buildings seemed familiar.

"I'm going to be unemployed in a month and a half," said Christopher Hoven, 31, an aide in the office of Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., who was defeated Tuesday night. "There's nothing you can do to stop it."

Nowhere was that uncertainty more gnawing than on Capitol Hill, where Republicans are ushering in a new era as the leaders in both chambers of Congress for the first time in four decades.

All over Capitol Hill, the unelected thousands who work for Congress -- and sometimes seem to wield more power than the politicians they serve -- confronted a world turned upside down.

Giddy over the idea of a new Republican majority in Congress, Republican staff members spent the day high-fiving each other and gleefully considering their new offices, new jobs, new power. Meanwhile, Democrats were lying low, mostly tucked away in the back rooms of congressional offices, consoling each other and talking about severance pay and resumes.

"You can walk down the hallway and know who is a Republican and who is a Democrat just by looking at their face," said Lester Munson, a Republican staff member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "For Republicans, it's euphoric."

Still amazed by the result, Mr. Munson added, "We've been in the wilderness for 40 years, and now we've reached the promised land."

While most Republicans celebrated and a few gloated, Democratic aides gathered for coffee and impromptu group therapy.

"It's like the company announced we're closing the plant and we'll get back to you with the details," said Jane Shey, 37, who has worked on Capitol Hill for six years. "We're all in a state of shock."

The House and Senate together have nearly 20,000 employees, not counting the Capitol Police or workers in the Architect of the Capitol's Office. Between now and January, when the next Congress begins, some of those people will have to pick up the pieces and move on.

Some black staff members said they feared that they might be hit disproportionately hard by the likely job cuts because many work for Democrats. One aide noted grimly that minorities are already so underrepresented that the situation couldn't get much worse.

Congressional committees, controlled by Democrats until Tuesday's elections, will be taken over by Republicans next year. The majority party controls a bigger share of the staff, so the Democratic committee staffs could be cut by at least half.

Yesterday, aides who had worked on Capitol Hill for years grappled with the possibility of having to leave Washington, and possibly even the public sector altogether.

Secretaries, groundskeepers and other support staff wondered if the new regime would have room for them.

"The people here are like your second family," said a receptionist who asked not to be named. "What can you do? Everybody says change is good, but I don't know."

Some politicians -- such as Newt Gingrich, the House speaker-to-be -- were calling it a revolution. But the revolutionaries were not on Capitol Hill yesterday, which seemed uncharacteristically still even for the election-time recess.

The marble hallways of House office buildings were vacant except for a few staff members. Office doors were closed. Telephones rang unanswered in congressional committee rooms. CNN blared from Hill offices, often playing to empty rooms.

For Republicans, the state of shock was entirely enjoyable.

When Stephen Vermillion, a Republican House aide, bumped into a friend near Bullfeathers, a Capitol Hill restaurant, the street corner was a flurry of backslaps and handshakes.

"Hey, what committees you got picked out for yourself?" Mr. Vermillion asked his friend, also a Republican staff member. Both laughed.

Mr. Vermillion said Republicans can expect to change not only their jobs -- by inheriting influential positions on committees -- but their entire work lives in Washington.

"There's going to be more space, more perks, more committee assignments," said Mr. Vermillion, an aide to Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican. "Republicans can expect to move onto committee staff, into leadership offices."

"There is legislation that never goes anywhere, and now we can move it," said Mr. Munson, the Republican Foreign Affairs aide. "We've been wanting to do this for years, and now we have the chance.

"Things will be very different around here," he boasted. "It's nice to know the administration is going to have to return our phone calls."

For now, Republicans are doing a little gloating after years of being the minority in Washington.

Two Republican National Committee staffers bounded down First Street Southeast with outward pride, one clad in a suit and a "GOP" baseball cap.

"We may sound like a couple of stiff Republicans but, well, that's what we are," grinned one of the workers, Greg Cleveland, 25. "Let's keep that rising tide going."

Democrats and Republicans are preparing for a big switch on Capitol Hill -- in some cases literally exchanging offices. Staffers like Mr. Vermillion can't wait to change places. The Republican aide is putting out a slew of calls to his Democratic friends by way of warning.

"I'm telling them I've got my tape measure," he grinned, "and I'm going to come over and measure their offices."

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