The ins and outs of the Capitol Hill office lottery

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 18, 2010; 9:11 PM

If Capitol Hill were a prison, office suites would be its cigarettes.

In a world of vast privilege and budgets that need not even be balanced, good offices are something unusual: a scarce commodity. There are a few stunners like Rayburn 2111, with views of the Capitol dome and easy access to elevators.

And then there are duds like Cannon 515. Its window peers out over rooftop air conditioning units. And some of the elevators in its building don't even stop on the fifth floor.

"Perfect metaphor for the federal government," said Wesley Goodman, a staffer for Ohio congressman Jim Jordan (R), who toils in the cramped suite now. He can't even see the window.

On Friday morning, 85 incoming House members will plunge into the centuries-old struggle over real estate, entering the office lottery. For them, this will be an early, indelible glimpse into the Hill's inner life: the House divvies up offices with ruthless speed, the Senate with slow gentility - and better upholstery.

Friday will also feature a humbling lesson about Congress's rule-bound world, and the new lawmakers' lowly place in it. You may be the people's choice, but that doesn't mean you get your choice of any paint color.

"They are the big dog in their district. No doubt about that," said Alan Hantman, who supervised this process as architect of the Capitol from 1997 to 2007. But here, he said, "there are rules and regulations that are in the best interest of the body of the House that they're going to need to conform to."

At 9 a.m. Friday, newly elected House members will crowd into a committee room in the Rayburn House Office Building and draw numbered metal disks out of a box. The number determines their draft order: Those who get good numbers often celebrate aloud.

Those who don't get good numbers know where they're going - the small, lonely offices near Jordan's on the top floor of the Cannon Building. These grim spaces just lost one of their few perks this year when officials advised Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) that he couldn't barbeque ribs on the balcony.

"Fifth floor of Cannon, here I come," the lottery's losers often say.

After each takes a number, the incoming legislators then have four hours to scout the buildings. Most will have examined the options via an internal Web site, which posts every office's layout and, crucially, the view from the congressman's window. Then they will return at 1 p.m. to pick, one after the other. If unready, then back of the line.

Next, it's time for one of the touchier parts of this process: interior design.

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