Congressional Underworld

Nearly every faith has a name for the underworld where those who have recently passed on must go first. It's a way-station of sorts. A halfway point.

Buddhists call it Naraka. The Aztecs referred to it as Mictlan. The Greeks described it as Asphodel Meadows. The Incan word was Uka Pacha. Some think of it as Limbo.

And in the House of Representatives, it's called the Departing Member Services Center.

That's why the House transformed room B339 of the Rayburn Building into the Departing Member Services Center. Or what one Hill staffer called a "refugee camp."

It's a little like purgatory. Only don't tell that to Rep. John Spratt (D-SC), who's leaving the House in early January.

"Purgatory assumes I've done something wrong," Spratt said.

A 14-term lawmaker, Spratt doesn't have transgressions to atone for. But he did lose last month to Rep.-elect Mick Mulvaney (R-SC).

Mulvaney is part of a more than 90-member freshman class which the House will be sworn-in come January. That means the lawmakers they are succeeding have to pack up and get out of Dodge. So in recent days, the House forced all members who either lost re-election or retired to abandon their Capitol Hill offices and toil instead at a series of cubicles, stashed away in the basement of Rayburn, across the street from the Capitol.

After all, the House remains in session this month, tackling tax cuts, spending issues and censuring Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY). So nearly one-fifth of all House members are ensnared in a Congressional phantom zone. They remain Members of Congress who must still debate, vote and meet with constituents. They need someplace to work. But they can't use their old suites as the House preps those quarters for the freshman class.

The space for the Departing Member Services Center is actually the Capitol Host Banquet Room. It's where universities, foundations and other interest groups hold evening cocktail receptions so people can mingle with lawmakers over silver dollar rolls and mini chicken teriyaki brochettes. Instead, the House converted the banquet hall into something that looks like an Indian call center. It features dozens of rows of grey cubicles, each equipped with a computer, a telephone and two chairs. A small wall divides the cubicles, reminiscent of study carrels in a college library. Each Congressional office is assigned a single cubicle, identified with a white card emblazoned with a number.

As a veteran lawmaker, you may have occupied a posh office with a view of the Capitol Dome on an upper floor of the Rayburn Building. But now, you've got Cubicle #71.

A low hum of activity permeates the room. The clicking of keyboards. The whirring of printers. Hushed conversations. You'd swear someone was about to answer the phone ""IT support Help Desk" and announce that the call may be monitored for quality control and training purposes.

Many Congressional offices have arranged work shifts in the center. One person staffs it for four hours while someone else works from home. Then they rotate.

Other aides are relegated to toiling in the House cafeterias or Starbucks.

"This is my life," said one aide, producing four, USB thumb drives from his pocket. "This is six-and-a-half-years of government service."

In one Congressional cubicle, the chief of staff pecked away at the computer screen while a legislative aide faced him awkwardly in a chair, balancing a laptop on her knees.

A woman greets staffers who enter the room and inspects their ID badges to make sure they're authorized to use the center. She then intercepts lawmakers near the door to make sure they can find their cubicle amid the maze of desks.

"I feel like I'm a nomad," said Rep. John Boccieri (D-OH), who lost to Republican Jim Renacci. "It's kind of rough. You can only have two people in the cubicle."

"They should have gotten us trailers," groused one chief of staff, referring to the universal remedy employed by school systems to combat overcrowding.

"Yeah, and then we would have had to have dealt with the formaldehyde," countered another aide. After Hurricane Katrina, the government dispatched hundreds of formaldehyde-tainted trailers to the Gulf Coast as temporary living quarters for those displaced by the storm.

The cubicles offer no identifying Congressional seal or accoutrement. No one has crafted a sign that declares that "This cubicle belongs to the people of the _________ district of _______," a proclamation often spotted on the doors to Congressional offices. The desks are stocked with usual office supplies like staplers, pens and scissors. Yellow Post-It notes seem popular, embroidering many computer screens with reminders and telephone numbers.

Everyone appears to have resisted the temptation not to convert their cubicle into a shrine to "The Office." At least I didn't spot any Dwight Schrute bobbleheads or Froggy 101 bumper stickers.

"Can you believe they made us turn down the TV's," kvetched one aide about the Departing Member Services Center staff. The aide noted their cubicle's set was turned to C-SPAN so they could monitor activity on the House floor.

"We were trying to figure out what we were voting on," she said.

"I want to know why we're not using the (Capitol Visitor's Center)," said one aide about the 580,000 square feet underground, behemoth in front of the Capitol. The CVC is for tourists. But it sprawls with offices, conference rooms and amphitheatres.

"That's what it was designed for," said the staffer.

Someone points out there are only two printers for all of the "offices" wedged into the center. One office says they were trying to print constituent letters, but had to wait for another office to finish their print job. Then that office mistakenly took their constituent letters. And they had to print everything all over again.

An aide for a western member says the hours of the Departing Member Services Center is also a bother. It's open from 9 am to 6 pm Eastern. Which means they shut off the phones at 3 pm Pacific Time.

Dozens of lawmakers gripe about the working conditions. And a perfect legislative and electoral storm is to blame for the complaints. Turnover is light after most elections. And the House and Senate are usually only in session for brief lame ducks, lasting a few days.

But the 2010 midterm election triggered a massive turnover, dislodging dozens of lawmakers. And they returned to Washington facing a session packed with action on seemingly intractable political issues.

It's a lethal combination.

"They should have planned better for this," huffed one member who asked not to be identified.

"If leadership thought it was important for us to vote, then clearly work is going on," said Rep. Artur Davis (D-AL). Davis is retiring after losing his bid for governor in the Democratic primary to state Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks. "They should give us a place to work."

Davis says he hasn't even darkened the door of the Departing Member Services Center. In many respects, Davis's trench coat is his office. Davis simply walks back and forth to the Capitol from his apartment in his overcoat when summoned to the floor to vote. During lengthy series of multiple votes, Davis never even took off his coat. He not only lacks an office, to say nothing of a hook on which to hang his coat.

What about hanging a coat in those famous "cloakrooms" located just off the House floor? In the conventional Congress, the cloakrooms operate as legislative operations centers. No one has actually stowed a "cloak" in a Congressional cloakroom since the 19th century.

But overall, Davis says it hasn't been too bad for him and his staff. Davis has known his electoral fate since spring and says that's helped his office prepare for the lame duck.

"My situation is different than those who lost in November. We began in June," Davis said.

One lawmaker who has it different is than Davis is his Alabama colleague Rep. Bobby Bright (D-AL). Rep.-elect Martha Roby (R-AL) defeated Bright.

"This is my office right here," Bright says, procuding a BlackBerry from his pocket. "I can handle the business by phone or email."

Bright doesn't even have an apartment any more. He moved out a few weeks ago and is now living in a nearby hotel.

"I could see where all of this could wear on people. But I don't think it will wear on me," said Bright of his itinerant existence.

Rep.-elect Morgan Griffith (R-VA) bested 28-year Congressional veteran Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA) last month. Boucher, who chairs the Technology and Internet Subcomittee says communication advances make this transitional period easier.

"Not having a physical office is not an inhibition for us," Boucher says, noting he uses his iPhone a lot. "Twenty years ago, it would have been a lot harder."

But while some lawmakers are reduced to a gypsy-like lifestyle, others are actually faring pretty well. And sometimes, it just pays to ask.

Take Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D-IL). Rep.-elect Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) felled Halvorson in the midterms. But even though she's just a freshman lawmaker, Halvorson scored some pretty sweet digs for the lame duck. Halvorson says Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) is allowing her to use space in his coveted Senate hideaway office in the Capitol..

"It's a great spot. It's got a computer and a refrigerator," Halvorson said.

Two other House Democrats from Illinois also lost: Reps. Bill Foster (D-IL) and Phil Hare (D-IL). Both have seniority to Halvorson. So I asked how she got to use Durbin's hideaway.

"Maybe they didn't ask," replied Halvorson.

Halverson's arrangement aside, senior lawmakers who are departing tend to have it a lot better than their junior counterparts.

For instance, 34-year House veteran and Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-MO) lost to Rep.-elect Vicky Hartzler (R-MO). So Skelton's working out of the "Truman Room" in the Rayburn House Office Building.

"Somebody put a name on it some years ago and called it the Truman Room," Skelton said.

As it turns out, that "somebody" was Skelton himself, a big fan of President Harry Truman. And the "Truman Room" isn't officially dedicated by Congress. It's just the name of an annex near Skelton's old office that he deemed the Truman Room. In fact, Skelton even afixed a plate to the wall designating the space the Truman Room.

Seniority means a lot on Capitol Hill. And the House grants many veteran lawmakers and committee chairmen like Skelton extra real estate like annexes. Or in this case, the "Truman Room."

Skelton's moved out of his regular office and now occupies the Truman Room.

The annex used to feature scads of Truman memorabelia. But it's now stripped bare except for a few awards given to Skelton, a photo of the congressman's great-grandfather and a solitary, fading paiting of Truman standing in front of the Capitol.

The painting quotes Truman's 1947 speech to the Canadian parliament.

"We seek a peaceful world. A prosperous world. A free world of good neighbors," goes Truman's quote.

Perhaps the "good neighbors" part is good advice.

Particularly for the band of lawmakers and aides stuffed together in the bandbox that doubles as the Departing Member Services Center.