Smoking Rooms Still Open (for Now)

Posted July 24, 2009 at 6:10pm

More than three months after deciding to close the House’s smoking rooms, officials still do not know when or how they will ultimately banish the last refuge enjoyed by Congressional staffers who smoke.

The House Administration Committee decided in April to close the rooms in the Longworth and Cannon House office buildings, which serve as the only indoor smoking areas where staffers can still light up. But House officials have been slow to move forward with the plan.

Part of the reason appears to be the convoluted approval process.

The committee’s order went to Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard, who must send a recommendation to the House Office Building Commission, which then would order the Architect of the Capitol to make the change. The commission is essentially House leadership: Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) sit on the panel.

CAO spokesman Jeff Ventura said the plan to close the smoking rooms is “being finalized— and the office will soon send a letter to the building commission.

“At this time, there is still no definitive date as to when said closures will happen,— he wrote in an e-mail.

The closing of the rooms appears to be one of the last steps in Pelosi’s ongoing effort to rid the House of secondhand smoke.

She began the trend soon after becoming Speaker in 2007, issuing an order to ban smoking in the Speaker’s Lobby. For decades, Members had used the room — located just off the House floor — to relax in a leather chair with a cigarette or cigar.

Since then, smoking has slowly been edged out. Smokers now can’t indulge within 25 feet of a House building’s entrance, and House shops also stopped selling cigarettes more than a year ago.

Members can still smoke in their own offices, but almost 99 percent enact a smoking ban anyway, according to a 2006 survey commissioned by the CAO. Lawmakers who need a nicotine hit can also head to the balcony beyond the Speaker’s Lobby.

But the enclosed rooms in the Longworth and Cannon basements represent the last smoking strongholds for House employees. Smoking is already prohibited at the cafeteria in the Rayburn House Office Building.

The rooms resemble exhibits in a museum: Smokers sit at tables behind a glass wall, separated from the rest of the lunch crowd.

Last week, both rooms were sparsely populated in the middle of the day. Across from Cannon Carryout, only a half dozen people sat inside the smoking area. In Longworth, employees from the Architect of the Capitol’s office took up most of the occupied seats in a room at the back of the cafeteria.

Riff Lanier, a building inspector for the AOC, said closing the rooms will only lead to more smoking in unauthorized areas.

He recounted getting a call from a Rayburn office complaining of a smoke smell soon after House leaders began clamping down on smoking. Upon inspection, he found dozens of cigarette butts in the parking garage.

“Make it fair. If you don’t want to take my smoke, that’s fine, but give me a place to smoke,— he said, after stubbing out his Salem cigarette. “I just think people are going to take negative action.—

House officials say they are closing the rooms for two reasons: to gain more space for cafeteria seating and to promote a healthy environment.

After acknowledging the rooms’ impending closure in April, a spokesman for the House Administration Committee said officials would develop a “transitional strategy— to address smokers’ needs.

It’s unclear what that means. The committee referred recent questions about the smoking rooms to the AOC, which in turn referred questions to the CAO.

The CAO’s role, however, is limited to officially recommending the smoking ban to the House Office Building Commission. Ventura said the recommendation will not get into the specifics of what to do with the rooms after smoking is no longer allowed.

When the ban goes into effect, smokers assume, they will have to go outside; many of them already do. Though they are supposed to stand 25 feet away from doors, several Capitol Police officers acknowledged that such rules usually aren’t enforced.

Richard Butler, who works in the AOC painting division, said he is concerned about having to stand outside in the cold or rain. A heavy smoker, he has been using the Longworth smoking room for years.

“I think they go a little far,— he said. Smokers, he said, should be given at least one place to comfortably light up.

But efforts to limit smoking areas aren’t new; they began in the House as far back as the 19th century, according to the Office of the House Historian. In 1871, for example, Members banned smoking in the House galleries.

Progress was slow until Pelosi’s tenure. Several resolutions to limit smoking cropped up in the 1990s, only to never be brought to the floor.

More recently, then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) added a provision to House rules exempting the House from the Washington, D.C., smoking ban that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2007.

Pelosi had amended that rule by Jan. 10, removing the Speaker’s Lobby from the exemption.