Thursday, November 20, 2008

Moving Out, Moving In

Did you ever wonder about the transition process from one Congress to the next? For outgoing legislators, it's a pretty abrupt comedown.

Mere weeks after losing power, defeated or retiring US representatives move to this temporary basement setup from the comfortable office suites where they previously worked. Here they pass their final days in office, each soon-to-be ex-legislator and his or her staff issued a single work space measuring approximately 5'x5'. The cramped cubicle accommodates little more than a tiny desk, a laptop, a phone, and a box of Kleenex.

Bob Beauprez, a former two-term Republican congressman from Colorado who left office in 2006.......recalls his own transition from elected office. "Anybody who's been through [this] who doesn't look in the mirror and wonder if anybody cares anymore…" he says, trailing off. "You go through a little bit of withdrawal. I was significant yesterday—today I'm not."

Before the outgoing members end up there, the mood is different.

During this period, it serves as the temporary quarters for newly elected House members, who are quickly swept up by a whirlwind of activity that includes orientation sessions and postelection parties and mixers. "When you're part of the arriving class, it's a beehive of activity," says David Williams, the chief of staff to Rep. Steve Kagen (D-Wisc.), who has escorted both arriving and departing members through the transition process. "It's Grand Central Station at rush hour. When you're there with the departing members, it's Grand Central on Christmas Day. It's empty. In fact, it's pretty morose."

Helene Flanagan, a Hill staffer who has helped to coordinate congressional transitions for 27 years......described both the mechanics and mood of the changeover. "I always say the freshmen members of Congress are like freshmen in college," Flanagan told me, standing among a bank of cubicles. "They're wide-eyed and happy to be here." On arriving, she says, it's straight down to business as new members of Congress are bombarded with information, ranging from ethics tutorials to staffing options. "It's like taking a fire hose to the poor souls, because we provide them with so much information. We get a lot of deer-in-the-headlight looks."

It isn't all work for the freshmen, who are inundated with invites to parties and luncheons held by fellow lawmakers, special interest groups, and lobbyists.

I found this tidbit particularly interesting.

It's a little-known fact that the strict rules [PDF] on gift giving and lobbying that apply to sitting members do not cover members-elect.

Meanwhile, the outbound are packing and decompressing......

Among other things, they must ensure that all the equipment in their office, which technically belongs to the citizens of their districts, is accounted for. If so much as a laptop is missing, the member is held personally liable. "If they don't pay, we take it out of their paycheck," says Flanagan.

For Beauprez.....the postelection period came as a shock. "You go from being in the middle of the nation's business to suddenly the phone doesn't ring," he says. "There's no mail that goes through. There's nobody to respond to."

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