Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The 104th and the 112th: A Renovation Revolution

(Reprinted from the Baltimore Sun, Sunday, November 28, 2010)

Just sense the terror accompanying the GOP takeover of the House of Representatives: the huge political battles ahead, the hand-to-hand combat with President 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 once 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, I joined the Public Works Committee. Forget about that smarmy New Deal/Great Society 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 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 the 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 here 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 styrofoam Humphrey-Muskie hat.

Forget the Contract With America, a new decorator had came 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 Democrat staffer fretted. Congressman Glenn Anderson had been a legend from Long Beach, California. "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 (Senator Edward M. Kennedy) and 43 members had email accounts, mostly AOL. Now, all House Committees were required to have sites; all staff and Members required to have email. Then came the most significant revolution in Congressional staff history: “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. 52 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 4th floor Cannon House Office Building to 1st floor room-with-a-view Longworth.

From November 18, 1994 onwards, 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 haunting rumble of the House Clerk caissons symbolizing the end of an office-space dynasty.

The new offices, the d├ęcor, the nifty new equipment, the chiliburgers 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 be revealed to the 112th.One night I was on the phone with my defiantly socialist mother 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."

The dawn, indeed, of a new day.