Shuttering the Office? Group Offers Tips

Posted April 16, 2008 at 5:51pm

There’s plenty left to do in the remaining months of this session, but Members who already plan to leave at the end of the 110th Congress — and even those who don’t — are being advised to start preparing now to close their offices.

The Congressional Management Foundation recently released a management brief offering recommendations for closing Congressional offices. It outlines the things Members must tackle when leaving Congress, from figuring out who will monitor the mail to where all that paperwork will go to helping staffers cope with losing their jobs.

“You need to have an overall plan for how you are going to approach this,” said Beverly Bell, CMF’s executive director. “It becomes very difficult in those last few weeks to get a lot done.”

The nonprofit, nonpartisan group has released the report for a number of years now, updating it each Congressional session, Bell said.

CMF employees compiled their recommendations after speaking with Hill staffers who have actually closed Member offices before, Bell said. The final report includes a range of suggestions designed to help give staffers a head start in their planning.

Tackling the logistics is key: When will the Member officially leave? Who will be the last person in the office? Who will handle closing the district offices? Who will take charge of the phones, computers and other office equipment? And where will it all go?

“You certainly want someone who is going to pick up the mail for a month or so, because you are going to have bills coming in,” Bell said.

Then there are the files, gifts and other property that Members have gathered over the years. Members should decide well ahead of time which library, university or depository will receive their Congressional papers, Bell recommended.

Michael Cronin, the office director and certified archivist for the House historian, told Roll Call last week that Members must take time to make the organization of their Congressional papers a priority. After all, there is a ton of stuff to dig through.

“It’s a pretty time-intensive process,” Cronin said. “Just to have in the back of their mind, how are we going to preserve these papers? What’s the plan? I think just asking the question is important.”

With all the paperwork that passes through Member offices, it is sometimes difficult to decide what to keep and what to discard, Cronin said. While correspondence between Members and anything related to legislation certainly is important, it is less clear when it comes to other documents and items, he added.

The Clerk’s Legislative Resource Center and Senate Historical Office are among the offices that can help staffers decide what to archive and what to throw away, the CMF report notes.

Handling casework is a whole other subject, Bell said. Members must decide quickly whether to conclude every case on their own or hand over unfinished work to the incoming Member, for example.

Deciding how often the outgoing Member will be in Washington — and what that Member will be doing while in Washington — is another issue, Bell noted. Although work might slow down, it certainly won’t go away entirely, she said.

Members also need to decide how to handle staffing issues, including what to do if staffers leave the office before it actually closes. For example, do Members hire new staff or just hand over the workload to others in the office?

Members and chiefs of staff must take time to address the needs of the staff, Bell noted. After all, most of them will be coping with the fact that they need to find a new job.

“If they’ve had time to think about it, maybe they have time to make a plan,” Bell said. “If you don’t find out until the first week of November that you are out of a job, it’s pretty jarring.”

The report lists several recommendations for helping staffers cope. Supervisors should provide staffers with as much information as possible about the office-closing process, including the benefits they are entitled to receive and the Congressional offices that can help them find new jobs, such as the House Office of Employee Assistance and the Senate Employee Assistance Program.

“To the extent possible that they can stay positive, that will help the rest of the staff,” Bell said of Members. “Yes, this is a shock to us. Yes, it is not what we expected to happen. But this is where we are.”

There are ethical concerns, the report notes.

Members and certain high-level staff are subject to post-employment restrictions on who they can lobby, represent or help out, for example, and financial disclosure statements might still need to be filed.

The House and Senate ethics committees can help former Members and staff through the post-employment process, according to the report.

The report also includes a number of unique tips for closing offices thought up by staffers themselves.

Among the suggestions: Use interns to help with the process; use color stickers to decide what items will be archived, sent to the Member’s home or donated; contact the Library of Congress to see if any books have been checked out that the office has lost track of; and use a large wall calendar to establish and keep track of impending deadlines.

When it comes down to it, closing an office isn’t unlike moving to a new house, Bell said. The more organized you are, the better the process will go.

“If you open the attic door and everything falls out, it’s going to make it a little harder,” she said.