These days, the perks of office more likely to stay in the office

January 16, 1999|By Ron Hutcheson | Ron Hutcheson,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- In their heyday, they were the kings of Capitol Hill, but former House speakers are finding that retirement isn't what it used to be.

First they lost their taxpayer-financed offices. Now the institution they once headed is trying to reclaim desks, chairs, rugs and a host of other keepsakes -- including some priceless artifacts -- that the former lawmakers took with them when they left Washington.

Legendary Speaker Sam Rayburn, who dominated the House for nearly two decades until his retirement in 1961, returned to Texas with a treasure trove that included a 2,500-year-old Grecian urn, a crystal chandelier, the original marble speaker's rostrum and a fireplace mantel that came to the Capitol from the White House.

Most of the disputed items are more mundane. Former Speaker Jim Wright of Texas re-created his Capitol office at Texas Christian University with a credenza, small table, couch and display case that had been government property.

"If they want to take it back, they can," Wright said. "I don't lay personal claim to any of this."

Former Speaker Tom Foley of Washington, who now serves as ambassador to Japan, has also agreed to turn over any disputed items. Officials with the House clerk's office have opened negotiations with the custodians of relics claimed by Speakers Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill of Massachusetts, Carl Albert of Oklahoma and John McCormack of Massachusetts, all of whom have died.

An aide to former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who resigned in November, said the Georgia Republican has no plans to re-create his Washington office with furnishings from the Capitol.

Rayburn's collection is on display at the Sam Rayburn Library and Museum in Bonham, Texas, which is fighting to keep it.

"I wish it had come up when Mr. Rayburn was alive," said H.G. Delaney, the museum director. "He had the ability to use language that would take wallpaper off. He wouldn't be exactly pleased, I don't think."

The search for missing Capitol furnishings began shortly after Republicans took control of the House in 1995, ending 40 years of Democratic dominance. Trying to fulfill their promise of better management, GOP leaders ordered an inventory that revealed glaring gaps in the property lists.

The dispute also highlights the changing culture of Congress. In Rayburn's day, speakers ran the House with unquestioned authority.

Wright, who came to Congress in 1955 when Rayburn was still in power, said speakers were expected to make their papers and memorabilia available to the public after leaving office. O'Neill re-created his office at Boston College, which has sent the chair he used on the speaker's podium back to Congress.

"What was done was done with the full consent and knowledge of everyone involved," Wright said. "If the rules have changed, OK."

The guardians of Rayburn's legacy are a bit more reluctant to surrender the showcase items in their museum. Delaney said the Grecian urn, valued at nearly $3 million, was a gift to Rayburn from the Greek government.

"What Mr. Rayburn wanted here was a replica of the speaker's office," Delaney said. "Those people are saying that he should have had permission from the Congress. Back in those days, he would not have had any trouble getting permission."

Pub Date: 1/16/99

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