News & Politics

“A Token Gesture to Departing Members ”

Outgoing representatives are forced to downgrade to a communal Rayburn Building office space

When members of Congress lose their seats or retire, they begin an awkward transition. Photo by Paul Morse.

>>For more pictures of emptied-out Congressional offices, see this photo gallery

As of December 1, the 72 House Democrats and 24 House Republicans who lost their seats in November or were retiring had to pack up their offices and return their phones, computers, desks, chairs, and couches—all of which lined the hallways while their empty suites were cleaned and readied for the next occupants.

Having been booted out, the lawmakers were told to move to an inglorious office space known as the “departed-members service center,” in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building.

House administrators herded the lawmakers into a series of connected banquet rooms outfitted with spartan amenities. Each lawmaker got one desk, one computer, one phone line, and two chairs. With room for only one aide at their sides, they worked where they once had mingled with lobbyists. Located across from a kitchen, the office space filled with the smell of cafeteria cooking and the clang of food and beverage carts rolling on tile floors.

“I don’t think anyone would find it to be an acceptable arrangement,” says outgoing Democrat Earl Pomeroy, who has represented North Dakota since 1992. “There’s no privacy for phone calls. There’s no physical space to make comfortable use of a computer. It is a token gesture to departing members.”

In the past, the temporary pen for the departed—which they must vacate before year’s end—had been a small room. But with so many outgoing members this year, dividers had to be taken down in three large rooms and two additional overflow spaces had to be set up.

After years with a bevy of staff, members were largely left to their devices, checking voicemail themselves, setting up their own meeting schedule, and doing the shipping of official papers to local universities, libraries, and museums so future generations could see evidence of their careers.

But they’re not letting go of all the keepsakes from their time as the powerbrokers. After a tearful last meeting of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, the largest in the House, chairman James Oberstar told a small group of reporters he wasn’t giving up his gavel: “I’ll put it on a desk at home, touch it from time to time, and remember all the good things I did with it.”

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