Members of Congress make do with temporary offices

Bureaucrats double up to give lawmakers space during anthrax cleanup

War On Terrorism

Anthrax Scare

October 24, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Rep. Henry A. Waxman's new office has pink silk flowers on the file cabinet, an "outstanding achievement and teamwork" award by the desk and a child's drawing on the wall that says, "My family and my house - by Brent."

Never mind that Waxman, a California Democrat, is not known for his taste in silk flowers, never earned the employee award and can't pick Brent out of a lineup.

The workspace in the General Accounting Office building actually belongs to Shirley L. Abel, a GAO employee whose name plate is easily missed next to the large "Rep. Henry Waxman" sign taped to the inside of her cubicle window.

This bureaucrat, like hundreds of others at the agency, donated her office so that all 435 House members and their aides would have a place to work until all the congressional office buildings are cleared of any traces of anthrax.

Capitol Hill limped back to life yesterday.

House members took over two floors of the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress. Senate staff members poured into the Postal Square building, where the Bureau of Labor Statistics and a brew pub reside.

The Russell Senate Office building will reopen today; the other congressional buildings are still being tested and remain closed, Capitol police said last night.

Some lawmakers were preparing for a long wait. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, said he considered it "a bad sign" yesterday when an official placed a permanent name plate outside his temporary GAO office.

Civil servants, meanwhile, surrendered their offices for lawmakers and their staffs.

Patrick G. McCray cleared off his desk in Room 5185 to allow Rep. Dave Weldon, a Florida Republican, to spread out there.

The occupant of Room 2088 left a note for the staffers of Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat from Southern Maryland, asking them to water the plants, please.

Another GAO employee left the invaders a house-warming gift.

"Make yourself at home," the staffer wrote. "Have a chocolate."

The GAO even consulted the House cafeteria about what foods are favored on the Hill.

At least 300 GAO employees worked from home yesterday, and many more doubled up in offices to make way for Hill aides.

While Capitol Hill was tested for signs of anthrax - an investigation initiated last week after deadly bacteria were found in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle - Hill denizens tried to soldier on.

"It's not home, but it's functional," said Rep. Bob Ney, who chairs the House committee that oversaw the relocation. The Ohio Republican said he prepared for the House move early yesterday morning by watching The Patriot, a Mel Gibson movie about the American Revolution.

"There's a line, `Hopefully all this is worth it,' and I thought, `Boy, how applicable today,'" Ney said. "This country was founded on rebels coming out of the cornfields. Congress is not a building. You can do your business on a street corner."

But it was a disorienting day. Instead of a vision of the Capitol dome, many Senate staffers had a view of the marquee advertising Corky Romano at a movie theater across the street. House workers crammed into the GAO, passing time at the Bean Counter Snack Bar or looking over the personal mementos of the government accountants whose offices they had overrun.

Each House member was given two offices, space for three staffers, two laptops and a supply kit that included pencils, a tape dispenser and a single steno pad. Senators were allotted a single office and room for two staff members. Most senior lawmakers were working in their hideaway offices in the Capitol itself, the only Hill building that remained open yesterday.

The transfer was highly organized - lawmakers showed up for room assignments - but work was sometimes elusive. Staffers complained that cell phones went dead unless they stood near a window, and they spent hours without Internet service or access to the House computer system.

Sallyanne Harper, a GAO administrator, was praising the smooth transition to a reporter, although her office phone went dead, a recurring problem yesterday.

But the staff moved freely without fear of anthrax, or other threats.

Lawmakers have been migrants on the Hill since the House and Senate offices closed late last week. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, entered the Capitol yesterday holding documents in a box. Members were glued to their pagers for information.

It was not until 4 p.m. Monday that House leadership decided the members would operate from the GAO building yesterday, so a brigade of Hill staffers stayed up all night preparing the agency for about 2,000 new inhabitants. Senate staff members were placed in the sixth-floor offices usually used by federal statisticians.

The temporary offices had an equalizing effect. Gone were "Members Only" elevators and bathrooms strictly for legislators. Security was so tight that few lobbyists even tried to enter. House members were assigned offices by alphabetical order, and aides said high-ranking members received the same modest offices as everyone else.

Legislators used to the perks of the Hill had to make due with just a few official niceties: A 10-by-15-foot cubicle, a phone and a package of Post-It notes.

Not all lawmakers worked at the makeshift offices. Some worked from their home districts or their Washington apartments. Most senators used meeting rooms inside the Capitol.

Still, the Hill landscape seemed less familiar. Today, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat, will hold a hearing on terrorism insurance in a basement room of the Capitol, rather than in the Banking Committee hearing room in a Senate office building.

Sun staff writer Karen Hosler contributed to this article.

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