NEW MEMBERS IN THE MARBLE CITY
The 116th Congress (the 1st Congress began in 1789 with George Washington) will officially begin in January. As the defeated and the retiring of the 115th leave all that marble behind, a new group is coming in. To follow the media we would have to believe that members are mainly occupied with the election of the Speaker in the new House of Representatives. What will be the fate of Nancy Pelosi? Article after article delves into her efforts to fend off opposition from some fellow Democrats. Will the redoubtable 78 year old work her old magic and return to the Speakership? Even President Trump briefly endorsed her effort to return (hint: with no one else in competition she should pull it out).
What we don’t hear a great deal about are the real “housekeeping” work that is simultaneously going on as the newcomers deal with their new offices and hire their staffs: Every member, including the 101 new ones, will get a three room office suite in one of the House office buildings. Each suite will be made up of a large center room and, on each side, another substantial room. The incoming Representative will choose one of the two side rooms for his or her office (often the one with the best views). In that office will be a big desk for the Member and often a table and chairs for conference meetings. Each of the side rooms will have identical storage space, closets, and identical bathrooms. Member’s official meetings usually start late in the morning but the sessions often go late into the night so a quick shower and a change of clothes can be helpful. And, although it is illegal to have alcohol on federal property, hidden in most members’ storage space will be supply of strong waters which can be taken out after work while the occupants wait for Washington traffic to die down.
The other two rooms will be largely taken up with about a dozen workspaces for LA’s (legal aids). Those are often young people hired from the Member’s district. Often people, just graduated from college, who are interested in spending time in the exciting “federal city,” volunteer to work for a candidate’s campaign. That way they can get to know the candidate well enough to apply for one of the Washington positions when the campaign is over. Some become a permanent part of the Capitol scene, working for “their” Congressman and perhaps using their experience to end up being hired elsewhere.
The elected candidates prefer to hire from their home districts because those people may know the district better than others. Their assorted relatives and friends may be encouraged to be supportive. And, although it’s not permissible to go home and campaign for the boss while working, vacations can be scheduled, or leaves of absence taken, just before elections. Somehow, many staffers end up back home working for the campaign. The fact that their jobs are on the line increases their fervency.
Those three room suites are doled out based on seniority. The offices most in demand are those that have a window looking out on the Capitol across the street. The implied status is really more important than the view. In theory, every time someone leaves everyone below them could move up. In practice, once a Member gets everything arranged and gets all their stationery and their cards printed and people know where they are, they don’t want to move. Still, there is considerable movement (the government spends more than a million dollars a year just moving members to new offices).
But now we have 101 newly elected members, 66 Democrats and 45 Republicans. And, we have that many people trying to move out. The 115th Congress will probably have its last session around December 14th. People have to move out of all those offices so that the new ones can move in. Many are going to be slow getting out. Many of their staff members will have already gone. There may be few people to help pack up.
So, imagine yourself one of those new members: After a struggle to get an office assigned and your predecessor cleared out, you have to hire that staff and get them organized and functioning. That organizing will be made difficult because you and the people you’ve hired will also have to spend time finding places to stay in Washington. With the churn of people leaving town and the burst of new ones coming in, that will not be easy. Your Christmas will be more anxiety than sugar and spice!
You will get 1.27 million dollars a year to hire staff and to run your office (435 members times 1.27 million every year is a considerable amount of money). With that money you have to staff and organize your new Washington office and an office or offices back in your district (the offices themselves will be free). One problem will be constant tension between the Washington staff and the people hired back in the districts who often function like social workers doing “case work”. The people in the office back home tend to feel ignored by the Washington staff. You will try to keep them happy.
Organizing and hiring are something that many new members have never done. It can create a enormous amount of stress for new members who find themselves struggling to deal with their committee assignments, and endless meetings amid seemingly constant long weekend trips home (where the home staff arranges meetings and events). As a member, you will effectively get free trips home so long as you are on “official business” There will be pressure to go back home almost every weekend. So much so, that a number of representatives simply sleep in their offices. Others share rented rooms (It’s like going back to college). Congress is now a community of tired strangers.
So, while the media agonize about Nancy Pelosi, the real world for new members will be constant struggle. There will be no time to read through complex legislation written in impenetrable legalize. There will be committee staff experts to do that. And, the leadership will decide almost everything. The new members may be happy to be there, happy and exhausted. All those goals they had, all those promises they made will recede into the distance, but they will have succeeded. They will be in the Marble City!