House of Representatives' freshman class plays the (office) lottery

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010; 8:43 PM

In a crowded hearing room, the minds that flipped a nation's politics were focused on questions about office decor, trying to remember which offices were eligible for new drapes.

"I feel like we're going to do really well," said Robert Hurt (R), a newly elected congressman from Virginia. He was shuffling through floor plans for House office buildings - he likes Cannon - and he just felt lucky: "Just something about the way the day's gone so far."

A few feet away from Hurt, at the front of the room, was a box containing 85 numbered metal disks. Within minutes, at 9 a.m. Friday, 85 new House members would draw to determine the order for selecting new House offices.

The lottery is a biennial spectacle in Washington, a fleeting moment of unfiltered emotion in the larval stage of new legislators. On Friday, they prayed, heckled each other, rubbed each other for luck, crossed their fingers, whooped when they "won" and winced when they "lost."

The scene played out until almost midafternoon.

"I think it's okay to be excited," said Rep.-elect Bobby Schillling (R-Ill.), one of the many in a large, celebrated and slightly feared freshman class who had campaigned for limited government. As the day wore on, several seemed to see the downside of being excited about snagging prime taxpayer-funded office space.

9 a.m.

When 9 a.m. came, new members were called to the box in alphabetical order and were told by the House's superintendent, William Weidemeyer, that try as they might, lucky dances would not work. That didn't stop the new members from trying any number of rituals:

David Cicceline (D-R.I.) stirred the chips around before he chose. No. 56.

Jeffrey Duncan (R-S.C.) pointed to the sky and crossed his fingers. No. 21.

Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) brought forward Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) - who previously pulled No. 1 - and rubbed Gardner for luck.

No. 52.

"Get out of here!" Huizenga yelled, mock-shoving Gardner away.

The attire was deceptively sober - so many suits - but the scene felt more like a mild poker night, as members who had spent the week in boring orientation classes heckled their new buddies.

They yelled "Frog Jump!" at Stephen Fincher (R), a farmer from Frog Jump, Tenn. They shouted "Go, Billy" at Billy Long (R-Mo.), a cowboy-hat-wearing auctioneer from Missouri. When Long pulled the bad-news number of 79, somebody yelled out "Sold!"

And when they got to "H," Hurt - the distinguished gentleman from Virginia who had the lucky feeling - pulled out a disk and grimaced. "Ooh!" he said.

"Mr. Hurt drew number 85," Weidemeyer intoned. Dead last.

As Hurt returned to his seat, the Class of 2010 stood up for a mocking standing ovation. "Take one for the team!" somebody in the crowd yelled. "Did that 'Hurt'?" somebody else gibed.

On the hunt

The next three hours were for office-hunting: Members roamed the halls of the Longworth and Cannon office buildings, the only places left after the incumbents cleaned out the swankier Rayburn building.

In Cannon, Rep.-elect Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.) poked his head into an office occupied by Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.). A Boren staffer played real-estate agent, touting the office's virtues: close to Metro, three minutes from the House floor, eligible for all-new carpets. The TV gets HGTV, he said, but sometimes it gets preempted by committee hearings.

"The parking lot's right outside?" Palazzo asked. It is. Palazzo said he had just come from looking at the "Longleaf" building.

"Longworth," someone in his entourage corrected.

"Longworth," Palazzo repeated.

That morning, Hurt had come with spreadsheets and floor plans. But for him, there was no point in looking anymore: He would just get what others left.

He left for meetings, staffer Sean Harrison said. And didn't return that afternoon.

"We decided on blue. Blue and green and cream-colored carpet," said Harrison, who would choose the office and paint colors in Hurt's stead.

1 p.m.

At 1 p.m., the group reconvened to pick. Going first, Gardner snagged Cannon 213, with a pretty view south down the crown of Capitol Hill.

In the back, Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) had scoured two office buildings with her staff. She had also examined schedules for the replacement of carpets and drapes. She was so worried about the pick that she ultimately told a staffer: "I am not worried about this."

It already seemed to be dawning on her staff that the joy of getting a good office might look frivolous to folks back home. Sewell's staff told a reporter she didn't want to talk much about it: She'd rather show up in the press as someone who's fighting for jobs in her district and not for office space.

Choosing in the middle of the pack was Kristi Noem (R-S.D.), already one of the stars of this ambitious class. After she chose (Cannon 226, a middling courtyard view), she walked out to begin the process of picking a furniture layout and paint colors. Noem was asked whether the day's lighthearted vibe was inappropriate, given the battered state of the country that elected the new class.

Replied Noem: "I hadn't correlated the two."

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