New Members Fear the ‘Cage’

Posted November 20, 2008 at 6:26pm

Offices on the fifth floor of the Cannon Building each get a “Cage,” a windowless room across the hall that houses the copier, the refrigerator and sometimes the conference room.

The “Cage” is often brought up in conversations with new Members about the dreaded fifth floor, as a warning when they are choosing their first House office. Among other caveats: The offices are cramped, old and out of the way.

Usually, those offices — along with some on the seventh floor of Longworth — are almost all open when new Members compete in a lottery for office space.

Not this year.

“It doesn’t look like it’s been at all true,” said Helene Flanagan, who is overseeing the Members’ transition for the Chief Administrative Officer. “Rooms seem to be open all over the place.”

Today, about 50 new House Members will compete for the offices left over after the incumbents have taken their pick. Each will pick a number out of a box in the morning and then spend a few hours scoping out offices.

Pick No. 1 and you get your first choice — such as a roomy office in Longworth. Pick a high number, and you’re stuck with one of the least desirable offices — usually on Cannon’s fifth floor or Longworth’s seventh.

But those offices aren’t as doom-and-gloom as the rumors would have it.

On the fifth floor of Cannon, the offices are small, but not any smaller than most House offices. They have an entrance room, a staff room, a Member’s office and extra space for a conference room or more staffers. They even have windows — and a balcony.

In fact, some Members actually prefer it there.

“It’s an unfairly maligned situation. There are much worse,” said Douglas Moore, spokesman for Rep. Jim Marshall (D-Ga.). “The fifth floor is actually wonderful. It’s an open secret.”

Marshall has stayed on the fifth floor for all three of his terms — and plans to remain there for a fourth. For awhile, he even slept in his office (he now spends his nights on his boat).

Marshall has switched fifth-floor offices a couple of times, finally cinching Room 504, which is a little bigger and better laid out then some of the others.

The usual complaint is that only certain elevators go to the fifth floor, and finding those elevators can be somewhat difficult.

But the fifth floor, Moore said, isn’t as hard to find as some say. Every elevator except those in the Cannon rotunda make the trip.

“It’s neither a bonus nor a drawback, neither an advantage nor a disadvantage,” he said. “If people are coming to the office for a meeting, signs are all over the place.”

Still, the floor can be quiet in the middle of the day, in contrast to the buzz of the rest of the building. And bringing guests to the “Cage” can be an uncomfortable experience, said Maura Policelli, chief of staff to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who spent her first term in Cannon Room 502.

“We have to have meetings in our storage room cage across the hall when we have any visitors, and it is pretty cramped,” she said. “But there is a little bit of camaraderie in the forced humility in being in what is known to be the worst space on the Hill with views of nothing and low ceilings.”

After two years on Cannon’s top floor, Giffords is moving to Longworth Room 1728, which is smaller by more than 100 square feet and still on an unpopular floor.

But, Policelli said, the office lets in more light, has views of the Washington Monument and, most importantly, is more conveniently located.

“We think it’s a step up,” she said. “There’s not a whole lot of glamour space up here in Washington, D.C.”

That’s especially true for the split suites, where a public bathroom splits a Member’s office in two.

Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Ohio) and his staff occupy Cannon Room 226. Wilson, the chief of staff, the scheduler and the staff assistant are on one side of the bathroom; the legislative and communications staff on the other.

Wilson first got the office when he was elected in 2006, and now he’ll have to stay another two years, after the bad luck of picking a high number in Wednesday’s lottery for first-term Members.

Perhaps determined to stay upbeat, spokeswoman Hillary Wicai Viers focused on the positives of the third-floor office.

“The two really great things about our office is we have a lot of office space and for the ladies, the bathroom is right next door,” she said.

Not all new Members get shafted in the race for a decent office.

Tom Perriello (D), for example, is favored to win the seat of incumbent Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.) — but the race hasn’t been officially called and thus Perriello won’t take part in today’s lottery. If he wins the race, he gets Goode’s office, which is probably better than the majority of those available to new Members.

But come next Congress, he’ll have to give up the office and participate in the lottery for one-term Members.

For those uncalled races between two newcomers, however, the Clerk’s office will draw in the lottery and pick the offices for the winners. That will mean two drawings this year — for the seats of the 15th district of Ohio and the 4th district of California.

With all the excitement in the House today, new Senators may be jealous — they don’t get word of their new offices until early spring.

In fact, they will occupy two temporary offices before being assigned a permanent one. And instead of a lottery, Senate officials will assign offices based on a seniority system that includes, for example, whether they’ve served in a state legislature or have been a governor.

No matter what, it’s largely a game of luck in both chambers, whether a Member has to run around looking for an office in the House or hope that he or she comes out on top of the seniority pole in the Senate.

Rep.-elect Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio) said his staff had scoped out office space, but he wasn’t worried about where he’d be working.

“I think we’re all just looking for space,” he said. “A Capitol Hill office is a good thing.”

Elizabeth Brotherton contributed to this report.