No cheers or jeers at the mostly virtual House office lottery

Pandemic precautions prompt low-key turn this year

Sen.-elect Roger Marshall, R-Kan., is seen in the Cannon tunnel while moving from his House office to temporary space on the Senate side on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. Marshall has served in the House since 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call)
Sen.-elect Roger Marshall, R-Kan., is seen in the Cannon tunnel while moving from his House office to temporary space on the Senate side on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. Marshall has served in the House since 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 3, 2020 at 12:24pm

A lone clap was briefly heard Thursday when California Rep.-elect Young Kim drew, virtually, the first choice of office space among her incoming freshman colleagues. The near silence wasn’t a reflection of the Republican’s popularity, just a side effect of a mostly virtual process put in place to make the usually raucous tradition safe during the coronavirus pandemic.

Every two years, the office lottery that closes out new member orientation becomes a delicate game of chance that will determine who gets choice workspace — and who must toil in the congressional badlands.

Gone was the packed room in the Rayburn House Office Building, where members-elect, their aides, spouses, media and an array of House staff would typically erupt in cheers when a low lottery number was picked, by hand from a box full of numbered chips.

Lucy McBath, D-Ga., does a dance after drawing number 18 during the new member room lottery draw in the Rayburn Building on Nov. 30, 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Instead, staff from the Architect of the Capitol House Superintendent’s office were in a room with a limited number of aides for incoming members, where a computerized algorithm chose the order in which names would be selected for the lottery drawing. Members-elect tuned in on Microsoft Teams while the media and others watched on a livestream.

There’s a domino effect that frees up offices for newcomers. Returning members have already laid claim to choice real estate made available by resignations, retirements and lost elections. That leaves whatever space they’ve abandoned for the new class to fill.

Kansas Republican Jake LaTurner was the unluckiest freshman on Thursday, drawing number 57, giving him the last pick of available office space. He didn’t get the sympathetic groans or encouraging applause from his new colleagues that have comforted lottery losers in previous years.

Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey reacts after drawing a disappointing number during the new member room lottery draw in the Rayburn Building on Nov. 30, 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

When they stake their claims to offices, most freshmen will end up in the Cannon or Longworth House office buildings. Only a choice few freshmen have scooped up a spot in the Rayburn building in the past dozen years.

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There’s a computer system that members-elect and staff can peruse, which includes some key details about the office suites, including if the office is eligible for new carpet, what year it’s due for renovation, if the windows are “operable” and if there’s a view of the Capitol. (A view of the iconic Capitol Dome is highly unlikely for junior members.)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., reacts after drawing number 40 during the new member room lottery draw in the Rayburn Building on Nov. 30, 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

During the congressional office shakeup every two years, the House Chief Administrative Officer coordinates the move-out process with member offices and a number of other support offices. The CAO and the AOC then prepare the office for the new member, which usually includes a fresh coat of paint.

That process moved forward this year, despite questions of whether such aesthetic upgrades were more important than the health and safety of movers, painters, cleaners and carpet layers moving in and out of offices as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, with cases mounting on Capitol Hill.

A worker carries a box of packing tape through a hallway in the Rayburn House Office Building on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. Some members of Congress are moving into new offices as the room lottery is held for new members. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Newly elected senators get their office assignments in a much more subdued tradition, where victory dances and shouting aren’t a casualty of the pandemic; they were never featured in the first place.

As with much of Senate business, seniority rules. For new senators, offices are picked by seniority, starting with the date a lawmaker is elected. For freshmen, the ranking is determined by previous government experience and then state population. The highest ranking goes — in descending order — to those with previous experience as a House member, Cabinet secretary or governor.

Prime office picks among incoming senators will go to former House members, including Roger Marshall, R-Kan., and Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., as they move across the Capitol. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper will also get a seniority boost among his colleagues. Prestige in other arenas doesn’t rank, which will leave a political newcomer like Tommy Tuberville, despite his fame in Alabama as the former head coach of the Auburn University football team, near the back of the pack.

For new senators without those roles on their resume, seniority is determined by state population, from largest to smallest.