Hideaway Redistricting in Full Tilt

Posted May 4, 2009 at 6:44pm

Clarification Appended

When Joseph Biden moved from the Senate to the White House, he left behind a piece of Capitol real estate that took him 30 years to acquire: an office near the floor with a full bathroom, fireplace and chandelier.

Like many of his Senate colleagues, Biden used this second office as a “hideaway— to hold meetings, entertain guests or take a break between votes.

Once he left, Room S-124 came up for grabs — and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), the longest-serving Member in his chamber, quickly snatched it up.

But Byrd already had a nice hideaway in S-126, thanks to 50 years in the Senate. So he asked the Senate Rules and Administration Committee to redesignate his old digs as space for the President Pro Tem.

Byrd, of course, is the President Pro Tem. And now he has the benefit of two convenient and impressive Capitol hideaways.

Rumors abound that the Senator also has acquired several other nooks and crannies in the Capitol during his tenure, though his spokesman said he was “not aware— of any others.

“When he leaves the Senate, they’ll find enough room for a fourth building,— joked one source who knows the hideaway process well.

Such is the wheeling and dealing associated with one of Congress’ oldest institutions: the Capitol hideaway.

Around for more than a century, the rooms act as an oasis away from hurried staffers and curious reporters. Some Senators use them to hold last-minute meetings; others slip in for a quick nap before a vote.

Senate officials estimate that about 80 are available, all doled out based on seniority.

“Some of them are very large, with marble fireplaces and crystal chandeliers,— Senate Associate Historian Don Ritchie said. “Some are little windowless pie wedges and basement cubicles. Some of them are barely enough for one person get into.—

Every Congress, Senators get a chance to move up — the more Senators who leave, the more opportunities for ascension. And this year, an unusually large number of senior Senators left legendary hideaways behind.

Former Sens. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and John Warner (R-Va.) were all near the top of the Senate’s seniority list, at Nos. 4, 5 and 12. Biden was No. 6.

Compare that with the 110th Congress, when the only Senator in the top 20 who left was Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.).

The Senate Rules and Administration Committee has already begun the process of doling out hideaways. Starting with No. 1 on the seniority list, officials give each Senator eight business hours to decide whether to switch.

Several sources said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is No. 2 in seniority, kept his hideaway, though Senate leaders loaned him a space closer to the floor after he was diagnosed with cancer.

And No. 3 on the list, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), already enjoys a room with a working fireplace and large windows.

But Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who moved from No. 7 to No. 4 this Congress, said he was leaving his hideaway of 20 years for one that sounded suspiciously like that of Stevens, balcony and all.

His old hideaway had a working fireplace, but “this one I kind of like the view,— he said.

Windows, bathrooms, balconies and fireplaces aren’t the only perks that draw Senators to hideaways. Many hold historical significance as the former offices of the Supreme Court, Library of Congress and legendary Members.

One of Leahy’s old hideaways is dubbed the Daniel Webster Wine Room because the 19th-century Senator used it as his wine cellar. Biden’s was filled with antiques from the time when Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) resided there.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) said his hideaway is where Samuel Morse first demonstrated the telegraph.

But after having it for six years, “I don’t use it as much as I used to,— he said.

Indeed, some Senators never use their hideaways, preferring to work solely out of their offices in the Hart, Dirksen or Russell office buildings.

That changed when police closed the Hart building in 2001 for more than two months after anthrax-laced letters were sent to the offices of Leahy and then-Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

Suddenly, Senators desperately needed space in the Capitol. Howard Gantman, former spokesman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), remembers Senators sharing hideaways to conduct business.

Feinstein’s office, he said, worked out of the Capitol basement, sharing telephones in the corridors because their cell phones got spotty reception.

“It was very tight quarters in most hideaways,— he said. “In order to do work, we would have to hold meetings in the hallways.—

It’s lucky, then, that House Members didn’t have to do the same. Because of the chamber’s large numbers, most never get a personal room in the Capitol; usually, the most they can hope for is a desk in the attic.

The Senate, however, began its tradition of hideaways in the 19th century, creating “sinecure committees— whose sole purpose was to justify space and staff in the Capitol, according to Ritchie. For example, a Revolutionary War Claims Committee existed until the late 1800s, despite the fact that most veterans were no longer living.

But once Congress began opening office buildings, Senators no longer needed Capitol offices. In the span of a few years, the number of committees decreased from about 70 to 20, and most Senators lost their space in the Capitol.

That didn’t last long.

“The problem is, Members work in the office buildings but vote in the Capitol building,— Ritchie said. “So hideaway offices sort of grew out of sinecure committees.—

The offices are rumored to be ground zero for negotiations and bipartisan deal-making. With the Senate floor now televised, Members want somewhere to privately debate, a neutral ground to hash out ideas.

Or, as some have done, a place to throw a party.

“Once you get it as a private office, you can pretty much do with it what you want,— Ritchie said.

The fact that hideaways are limited makes them a valuable commodity.

Byrd is only the latest to deal in Capitol spaces — Lyndon B. Johnson, for example, had collected seven hideaways by the time he became president in 1963.

Several sources said the opening of the Capitol Visitor Center might provide a few more hideaways, since offices such as the Senate Recording Studio vacated the Capitol for the newer building. Calls to the Rules Committee for comment went unanswered.

That secrecy isn’t unusual. Hideaways, after all, are hidden, and some Senators would rather not speak about them at all.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who is No. 14 in seniority, brushed off any questions on his second office.

“I haven’t got a clue where mine is,— he said. “That’s how well it’s hidden.”

Clarification: May 5, 2009

The article reported that Sen. Robert Byrd (W.Va.) redesignated his former hideaway to use in his capacity as President Pro Tem. In fact, Byrd asked the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, where he is the second-ranking Democrat, to reassign the hideaway.