The 85 incoming freshman of the 112th Congress won't be sworn in until early January, but on Friday -- as part of their weeklong orientation -- they all went through the great House office lottery.
In alphabetical order, each stuck a hand into a wooden box and pulled out a metal token. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), hit the jackpot with No. 1 and was loudly cheered and high-fived by colleagues. Moments later, the aptly named Robert Hurt (R-Va.) extracted No. 85, which earned him a sympathetic standing O.
At stake were dozens of OK-to-not-so-hot work spaces that the newcomers and their aides would occupy for the next two years in one of two imposing House office buildings: Cannon, a majestic, century-old Beaux Arts confection, and Longworth, a 1930s Neo-classical Revival edifice. Not a single freshman had a prayer of scoring a suite in Rayburn, the coveted, circa-1960s building beloved by the seniority set for its large rooms and windows, its gym and swimming pool, an underground garage and the tram that zips them to and from the Capitol.
True, all members can use these amenities, but Rayburn is its own reward. Still, some longtime lawmakers -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi among them -- prefer the grandeur of Cannon.
Friday's drill was simple. At 9 a.m., members began picking numbers under the auspices of the Architect of the Capitol. Then, armed with a list of available suites, complete with square footage, they scurried off with the spouse, an aide or two and perhaps a hometown reporter in tow. In this variation on speed-dating, they eyeballed multiple offices being vacated by incumbents who were moving up to better digs, or retirees and losers moving off Capitol Hill entirely.
They had various criteria: An easy walk to, or perhaps a partial view of, the Capitol; proximity to committee rooms (assuming party leaders honored freshman requests); a large private office for those who planned to live on site, though that would mean more cramped work areas for staff; a lesser sanctum sanctorum to give underlings a bit more room. They did not want split suites, where aides had to walk out in the hall or through the member's office to get from one area to another.
Some lawmakers placed a premium on a spacious reception area for visiting constituents; one staffer mentioned access to the seventh-floor Longworth roof. Although outdoor grilling has been known to go on out there, it is strongly discouraged as a fire hazard, said William M. Weidemeyer, superintendent of House Office Buildings, who ran the lottery. Newbies whose helpers had really done their homework brought along spreadsheets showing the year each office was due to get new curtains and carpeting (more about which later).
Crunch time came after lunch time, and by 1 p.m., members were declaring their choices. Those with lower numbers usually scored an office on their top-five list; those in the 70s and 80s got whatever was left.
Gardner went for 213 Cannon because "it's easy for people from Colorado to get there from the Capitol, it's close to the Metro, there is a bigger area for the legislative staff and room to meet with constituents. I won't be there all the time, so it was important that they all have the space."
Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), wearing a crimson skirt suit with matching red sequined cowboy hat, hoped to have the walls painted a vivid yellow, (not a chance in the public spaces, said Weidemeyer; they must be approved pastels, though personal offices can be eye-jolting). Wilson plans to accessorize 208 Cannon with African art and sculpture she's bringing up from Miami.
Because Tim Griffin plans to live in his office, the Arkansas Republican -- No. 14 -- went for 1108 Longworth, which is close enough to the Rayburn gym for his morning shower. Despite a base salary of $174,000 a year, he'd rather sleep in what amounts to public housing because Washington rent plus taxes are "a little expensive . . . I've got two young kids and my wife stays home, so it's mostly a function of budget."
As more offices were claimed, Cedric Richmond (D-La.) -- No. 55 -- nervously checked the status of several Cannon suites. "I like the tall ceilings and the natural light," he said, half-listening to his colleagues' choices. "Damnit," he suddenly blurted out, "Bill Keating (D-Mass.) just picked my No. 1 office. But he deserves it. He's one of only nine Democrats elected this time. We can all fit in an SUV."
Ultimately, Richmond snagged 415 Cannon, complete with enough of a Capitol view to impress the folks from home, and 958 square feet to accommodate the staff. Equally relieved was an aide from his Louisiana office who'd come to Washington to help the boss through orientation. "I didn't want him to have the worst office of the Hill."
Ben Quayle's last Washington address was the vice president's residence occupied by his father, Dan Quayle, and the rest of the family from 1989 until 1993. For his return the D.C., the Arizona Republican picked 1419 Longworth. "It was spotless," declared his wife, Tiffany. "It has a real great layout and it has a nice outdoor view of trees."
Once they'd claimed their offices, members went to pick out paint colors -- pale Benjamin Moore creams, grays, yellows and blues. Anyone hoping make a bold design statement may only do so in the personal office, with paint bought privately, not with House office allowances. Custom color choices tend to be gender-driven, Weidemeyer told Politics Daily: Deep blue for men, "red with a little pink or coral" for women.
Every five years, each office gets a face lift with new carpeting and draperies, in such safe, government-issue shades as garnet, maroon, navy blue, beige and dark green.
If Trey Gowdy cared where he hung his hat or what color his walls were before the lottery began, the South Carolina Republican soon got a reality check. "This morning I was sitting next to a guy, David Harmer (R-Calif.), who was in a recount and it doesn't look so good. When you are looking through the prism of someone who may lose a recount, there is no such such thing as a bad office, no bad committee assignment, which puts this process in a different perspective."