Real estate bubbles might have burst all over the country, but there’s one market that will never go cold: the Capitol, where Senate hideaways are the hottest, yet least publicized, properties.
And now the landscape there is changing, with big chunks of primo real estate — the secret offices belonging to senior Senators who have either retired, lost re-election or died — that will soon be up for grabs.
“I’m taking it with me,” joked former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) about his old hideaway. Such spaces are doled out on the basis of seniority, and as the 11th-most-senior Senator in the 111th Congress, Dodd’s office is considered relatively plum. “The whole family’s moving in.”
But Dodd’s former digs are far from the most coveted space to open up.
The biggest prize is the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) elegant office, a third-floor perch once filled with Camelot-era memorabilia. Now it sits vacant, as does space once occupied by the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who in various capacities — the dean of the Senate, its President Pro Tem and the longtime chairman of the Appropriations Committee — had amassed several well-placed office suites.
After undergoing some spiffing up — fresh paint and minor repairs — those digs eventually will be offered to Senators based on seniority and regardless of party, according to Jean Bordewich, staff director for the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which oversees the process. Last Congress, she noted, the shuffle began in March or April. Now, the committee is busy getting Senators and their staff into their regular offices, and it will deal with hideaways once that process is over.
When it comes time to dole out the Capitol hideaways, each Senator will be notified of the space available. They can go check out the space and let the Rules Committee know whether they will take the new space or remain where they are.
And although prime hideaway real estate is available, it remains to be seen who will take the offer to upgrade offices. More junior Senators likely are eyeing the hideaway prizes, but the new most-senior Members already have ritzy spaces they might be loath to leave. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), the chamber’s senior Member, for instance, already has a lovely hideaway in the former office of the director of the Library of Congress.
And Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), No. 2 in seniority, has his own sweet setup: an office adjacent to the Speaker’s office, with majestic views rolling down the National Mall. Leahy’s spokesman noted the process of allotting new hideaways hasn’t yet begun, but he said the Senator so far “hasn’t made any request to change.”
Besides its views, size, private bathroom and location just steps from the Senate floor, Kennedy’s hideaway has the added allure of history. “It has the imprimatur of the great legislator,” said Jim Manley, a former Kennedy aide. “A lot of legislating took place in that room — and also some good times.”
In addition to the spaces vacated by Byrd, Kennedy and Dodd, the old, and now vacant, hideaway of former Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) is considered prime as well. His private digs were on the first floor, in a less-trafficked hallway. Though the office fronted the less fashionable east side of the Capitol (the hideaways with Mall views, of course, are preferred) it boasts a view of the Supreme Court, as well as double doors and large windows.
While not every Senator will have a shot at such covetous apace, all of them will have a hideaway of some kind. In a recent development, all 100 Senators will have a hideaway, a privilege once accorded to the most-senior Members of the chamber.
As in any real estate market, not all properties are equal. Some are little more than closets in the Capitol basement, with enough room for a desk and a sofa.
Still, not every Senator needs a fancy escape.
Former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said he infrequently used his hideaway, which he described as a relatively modest affair — although it was several steps above the “closet-like” basement room he was assigned early in his Senate career.
“I just didn’t see much need to be there,” he said, noting that as a committee chairman and ranking member, he had access to other work space in the Capitol. “Some [hideaways] have great views, and others have great history — how they’re used depends on the preferences of the individual Senator.”
In an era where nearly every detail of Congressional life is documented, scrutinized and dissected, hideaways remain a rare bastion of mystery. Many Senators keep the location of theirs private, and many spacious hideaways sit behind decidedly nondescript-looking doors.
The Senate Rules Committee does not disclose the location of the hideaways, nor does it actually use the word “hideaway,” preferring the more vanilla (and less mysterious) “Capitol office.”
Senate Historian Don Ritchie said the veiled offices give Senators a respite, if they want it. “Senators have public offices where they meet with constituents and do their business, but they also have private ones,” he said. “It defeats the very purpose to publicize them.”
Ritchie described an old trick for sussing out where the hideaways were: Back when most Senators had their hometown newspapers delivered to their doors, you could walk along the hall and tell by the paper whose office it was. “You’d see the Milwaukee paper and think, ‘Oh, that must be a Wisconsin Senator’s,’” Ritchie said.
Now, one might only be able to identify where Senators’ getaways are located if you actually see them slipping into their rooms.
Hideaways had their genesis in 1909, Ritchie said, when Senators and their staff first moved out of the Capitol and into the first Senate office building (then simply called the Senate Office Building and now named the Russell Senate Office Building). While they had larger offices, they were farther from the floor, so many were given private Capitol offices.
The construction of the Dirksen and Hart buildings, and finally, the Capitol Visitor Center, has created more vacant space in the Capitol, allowing for more hideaways.
Visitors get their first look at the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, which opened to the public on Monday, Oct. 6, 2014. The new memorial is located off Independence Ave. SW between the Rayburn House Office Building and HHS. Buy photo here.