Congress' new look

The faces aren't the only thing that changes when a new party takes over the House

November 28, 2010|By Jeff Nelligan

Listen to the torrent of expected turmoil from the GOP takeover of the House of Representatives: the huge political battles ahead, the hand-to-hand combat with President Barack Obama, the legislative Armageddon.

Yeah, agenda this, policy that. But I'll tell you where the real turmoil begins. It's in the mechanics: the transfer of real estate from the erstwhile majority to the now-ascendant minority, the shift in operations, the scramble for office space, the control of committee rooms — and the menu in the Longworth cafeteria.

I know. I was a shock trooper during the turnover from the 103rd to 104th Congresses, and a veteran of the 100th and 101st. When power shifts, there's a scramble. The leadership and the chairmanships of 24 standing House committees change, as do more than 105 subcommittee chairmanships. The former minority is emboldened with power to change the way business is done in Washington, and that means one thing: renovation.

At the end of the 103rd Congress, in the mid-1990s, I joined the staff of the Public Works Committee. Forget about that New Deal/Great Society throwback moniker. The nameplate was ripped from history, to be replaced by "Transportation and Infrastructure Committee." Our offices, like those throughout all three House Office Buildings, hadn't really been altered in decades. I vividly recall wandering through office space jammed with wooden filing cabinets holding memos from the 1970s. Photos from the 1960s hung on walls, ornamental ashtrays were everywhere — as were black rotary dial phones with straight cords — and, every now and then, a dull green IBM Selectric typewriter.

As the new spokesman for new committee, I got a high-ceilinged office overlooking the fountain on the west side of Rayburn, a football heave from the Botanical Gardens. The former occupant, a friend, had been there for years. As it was being cleared out, she sighed that there was so much living history here. "You're not kidding, " I murmured, watching workers move a coat rack from which hung a Humphrey-Muskie styrofoam convention hat.

After 40 years in the political wilderness, Republicans had finally taken the House. Forget the Contract With America, though; a new decorator had come to town. Walls that had stood since the interstate system was built were torn down, carpet trod upon by House champions was ripped up, mildewed furniture was sacked. Elegant portraits of past committee leaders hung everywhere and had to be moved. "Where is Chairman Anderson going?" one senior Democratic staffer fretted. Congressman Glenn Anderson had been a legend from Long Beach, Calif. "No problem," I said sincerely, "I'll take him — I was born in Santa Monica." Yes, it was chaos.

As the old ways departed, the new entered. There came down an edict from the speaker-to-be: We will be the first modern legislature in history. In November 1994, the entire House and Senate had one website (Sen. Edward M. Kennedy) and 43 members had email accounts, mostly AOL. Now, all House committees were required to have sites; all staff and members were required to have e-mail. Then came the most significant revolution in congressional staff history: the amazing technology known as "attachments." The old days of spending hours walking testimony and memos between three House office buildings had ended.

And this massive transformation didn't stop with the pdf. Fifty-two new GOP members were seated, setting off one of the greatest office-switch daisy chains in congressional history. Personal member offices are assigned by seniority. With the seniority system shot by Democrat losses, here now came the complex orchestration of moving Congressman Joe — and every single item in his office — from cramped fourth floor Cannon House Office Building to first floor room-with-a-view Longworth. From Nov. 18, 1994, onward, the House clerk movers wheeled huge dollies carrying sofas, chairs, desks, filing cabinets, lamps, and endless boxes of "important" files. The rooms couldn't be moved all at once, given the sheer amount of stuff colliding in corridors. Hence, the moves were done after 8 p.m. and before 6. a.m., the rumble of the House Clerk caissons symbolizing the end of an office-space dynasty.

The new offices, the décor, the nifty new equipment, the chili burgers at last in the Longworth cafeteria — it was all part of the magic of the 104th Congress this Hill rat recalls so well, the promise of which will soon be revealed to the 112th. One night, I was on the phone with my defiantly liberal mother (represented by Henry Waxman, no less), and caught up in the exuberance of the moment, I said, "We're changing how this town operates." "Give me one example, son," she said tersely. I was sitting in the committee hearing room after hours and was flummoxed for an answer. Then while gazing out at the panorama, it came to me: "We've got new microphones on the dais for all the members."

Truly, the dawning of a new day.

Jeff Nelligan, a Baltimore resident, spent a decade working in the legislative branch with Congressmen Bill Thomas and Bud Shuster and the U.S. Government Accountability Office. His e-mail is jeffnelligan@gmail.com.

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