House Members Survive Bipartisan Ordeal

Posted June 11, 2003 at 6:21pm

Here’s the pitch: Fourteen House Members — male and female, big and small, liberal and conservative — stuck in an elevator for a half-hour and forced to learn how to get along.

No, it’s not a new TV show. It’s real life and it came to pass on Wednesday, when 14 lawmakers and an elevator operator were stranded in a Rayburn car for 35 minutes before Architect of the Capitol workers were able to force the doors open. A pending House vote was held open for several minutes so the lawmakers could make it to the floor.

“It was pretty wild,” said Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), one of those stranded. “You hear about being stuck in an elevator but then it never happens.”

The famously partisan Boehner was part of a motley crew that included liberals such as Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) and conservatives like Reps. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.) and Tom Osborne (R-Neb.).

Disappointingly, the incident does not appear to have yielded any budding romances, oddball friendships or tearful epiphanies. But there was humor (lots of jokes to break the tension), drama (Washington Democrat Norm Dicks is apparently claustrophobic) and suspense (Michigan Democrat Dale Kildee almost marred his near-perfect voting record).

Architect of the Capitol spokeswoman Eva Malecki said the elevator got stuck because it was “overloaded,” as the 15 occupants of the elevator apparently exceeded the 3,000-pound weight limit. (Allowing for an average weight of 200 pounds each, no one was willing to point fingers as to who might have put the group over the top.)

The extra weight caused the bottom of the elevator to sag below the level of the floor outside, automatically engaging the “limit switch” and preventing the doors from opening. The doors stay closed when the limit switch is engaged because otherwise the elevator’s occupants could trip upon attempting to exit the car.

Several lawmakers said Kucinich played a commanding role, getting on the elevator’s phone and keeping in touch with the Architect’s office and both Cloakrooms. This performance was variously attributed either to the Ohio presidential candidate’s natural leadership qualities or to the fact that he happened to be the one closest to the phone.

Afterward, one Republican Member teased Boehner that he had locked up a job as secretary of Education in the Kucinich administration. “Secretary of Labor,” Boehner corrected. “I’ve got it locked up.”

As they waited for the Architect workers to free them, the lawmakers passed the time by telling jokes, partly to ease the fears of the claustrophobic Dicks.

Ackerman’s quips — mostly about food, apparently — were given high marks. “Ackerman got the award,” said a relieved Dicks.

Boehner told a joke about ex-President Bill Clinton, and Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) told one about President Bush. “So we were even on the presidents,” said Musgrave.

Kildee, who has missed only one House vote since 1985, said that Osborne provided a “calming presence” for everyone.

The former Nebraska football coach did seem concerned, however, that Musgrave appeared to shrink during the ordeal.

“The only thing I did was take off my heels and Mr. Osborne noticed I lost three inches of height,” Musgrave said.

When the doors finally opened, Ackerman got the last laugh when he looked out and said, “We’re on the wrong floor!”