There is some bitterness these days on the fourth floor of the Rayburn House Office Building, along with relief, regret, bemusement and anticipation. But most of all, there are boxes. They are everywhere, stacked five and six high in the corridors and from floor to ceiling in the offices of congressmen, defeated or retired, who must depart as soon as the lame-duck session named in their honor adjourns.
Inside each box is an infinitesimal bit of congressional history destined for a college library or a basement back home. They are marked with labels both obscure and telling: Wild Horse and Burro 1980. Papers of Hon. David R. Bowen. Invitations Accepted and Declined. 1978 Case Files. Mental Health to Indians. Memos and Campaign Blues. Public Activities 1976. Historic Pictures and Notes.
These boxes are the symbol of Duck Row, Rayburn's fourth floor, where there are more lame ducks per square foot of office space than any place on Capitol Hill. Thirteen congressmen on this floor are clearing out 162 years worth of accumulated experience. Six chose to leave, six were told to pack by the voters and a sole lucky one was elected to higher office.
Every day last week, the Congressional Record was brimming with praise for them and for all of the 79 House members and five senators who soon will be gone, and their backs were slapped to the bruising point.
On the surface, it seemed they were going about their business as usual, attending committee meetings and dashing across Independence Avenue to vote at the sound of the buzzer. But often their minds were elsewhere.
Leo C. Zeferetti (D-N.Y.) was busy answering phone calls from lobbying groups that wanted him to stay in town and work for them. David R. Bowen (D-Miss.) was wondering whether he should go to work for a trade association, return to teaching or run for governor next year. Ronald M. Mottl (D-Ohio), a former ballplayer, was trying to arrange a meeting with Gabe Paul, general manager of the Cleveland Indians, to see if he could do some legal work for the major league club.
Mottl, a buzz-topped conservative firebrand cut from Congress after four terms because Democratic primary voters in his district thought he was playing too often on President Reagan's team, was in a reflective, almost serene mood as his days here drew near a close. He said that it took him a while to get over the embarrassment of being rejected -- "It isn't that easy for an incumbent to lose around here" -- and that with each passing day he felt a diminution of his clout.
"My standing changed the moment I became a duck," he said. "I was seven signatures short of getting my constitutional amendment against court-ordered school busing to the House floor last time. I had 211 and needed 218, and I would have brought it up again this year if I'd won. But that's dead now."
He paused for a moment and stared at rows of nails on an office wall in room 2459 that once held an expansive photo gallery. "There used to be a lot I could offer as chairman of hospitals and health care a subcommittee of Veterans' Affairs . I could consider projects for other members, things like that. I used every tool I could to help myself on any bill. But now what've I got to offer? No one's going to sign a petition for a lame duck."
Still, there is some currency in being an ex-congressman. When Mottl leaves, he most likely will be associated with a prestigious, Washington-based law firm--Cook, Purcell, Hansen & Henderson--all of whose partners are former members of Congress. "It's not firm yet," Mottl said. "But I'm trying to get admitted to the D.C. Bar."
Down the hall in room 2421, Bowen spoke of his options in calculated terms. He said he decided to retire because he feared he would be nothing more than a subcommittee chairman for another 10 years if he stayed and also because his part of Mississipi had been redrawn by the Justice Department into a majority black district.
If he ran for governor next year, he said, he would be considered the favorite. If he went back to college teaching, he would again be able to read, write and think, three things that congressmen rarely have time to do. And if he went into consulting for one of the many trade groups lobbying regularly before the cotton, rice and sugar subcommittee he has chaired for eight years, he would make a lot of money.
"My intention is to go back to Mississippi, but the option of staying in Washington is financially brightest," he said. "I've made a lot of friends here, and there are a lot of people -- trade associations, interest groups -- who think I could be of help to them if I chose to go that route."
Over in room 2436, Zeferetti was getting a new understanding of the unemployment problem. His future seemed secure enough -- "the phone's been ringing off the hook with people who want me to stay on the Washington scene as a consultant" -- but none of his 19 assistants here and in Brooklyn had landed a job, nor had many of the 14 staffers who worked for him on the Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, which he chaired.
"I've got an awful lot of extra people out there looking for work because the narcotics committee is going out of business," Zeferetti said. "It dies with me. Rodino Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee has wanted the drugs jurisdiction back in his committee for a long time, and without me around to fight for it, hey, he's going to get it back. There's no one coming up behind me who's got the clout to keep it going."
Zeferetti, a man of some influence on the Hill due to his chairmanship and membership on the powerful House Rules Committee, has been peddling resumes of his loyal troops to dozens of incoming congressmen, a departing act of kindness that his staff returned by buying him his mahogany office desk and chair as a Christmas present.
Being allowed to purchase those desks and chairs at cost from the General Services Administration is one of the many small perks given to lame-duck congressmen; another is getting to use the congressional mail franking privilege for 90 days after leaving office.
"I'm going to miss this place, no question about it," said Zeferetti, who lost this fall when his district was reshaped to include all of Staten Island, the home base of an incumbent Republican. "It was a great feeling to be part of this institution, as much as people put it down."
"Oh, it's f---ing terrific, this place, let me tell you." The speaker was John L. Burton, a Democrat from San Francisco who is retiring after eight years in the House, and the words were characteristically sarcastic. Burton had been padding around his office in the Longworth House Office Building all morning in tennis shoes, corduroy pants and a "Stop MX" T-shirt, the shirt being the main change from the day before, when he wore one that read "Rolling Stones Tour 1981."
Burton said he is leaving Congress for one reason. "I wasn't having any fun. I went through some bad personal stuff, real bad. I got divorced, my best friend San Francisco Mayor George Moscone got assassinated, other bad stuff. I just started to wonder what the hell life was all about. And the job started to seem kind of meaningless.
"You know you come in here and vote against the B1 bomber and then the goddamn thing comes up again the next year. How many times can you vote against the B1 bomber? Or abortion. We keep voting on abortion. The way it is now I don't know if a general's wife can get an abortion to save her life."
Burton said he is anxious to leave the Washington scene and has no plans to get back into politics. "Hopefully I'm going to enjoy life. I'm going back to San Francisco and try to be happy for a change. I've been 18 years in public office, and it was not always the best of marriages. I'll miss some people here, but I won't miss the trappings of power. Some of the things in these boxes around here I'll give to a law school, I guess. The rest of my honorable papers will go down the honorable chute."
Over in the Cannon House Office Building, on the first floor, sat Eugene V. Atkinson of Beaver County, Pa., another duck who said he was not broken up about leaving the congressional pond. Atkinson was defeated this fall, but in a sense he retired that day in 1981 when he journeyed over to the White House and with great fanfare switched parties to become a Republican. The move did not sit well a year later with voters in the steel valley where about one-fourth of the people were out of work.
"If the economy had turned right, everybody would have said, 'Hey, that Gene, he was a prophet,' " Atkinson said. "Instead, I got creamed. But I can't have any regrets. I think if you honest-to-God believe in something, you gotta go all the way with it. In Washington, I believed in Ronald Reagan. I still do. If I were just a county commissioner back home, I'd still be a Democrat. But losing a congressional seat isn't the end of the world. It sure frees up your weekends."
Atkinson attributed his party switch to two events. The first was when he was on a talk show one weekend morning back home, and President Reagan happened to call in. "He said he needed my vote on the budget, and I said I was with him all the way. It was really something, because it was while he was recovering from the assassination attempt and everyone was wondering how he was doing. Boy, the place just lit up after he called. And it made me feel a personal bond with the man. That set the tone for later happenings."
The second influence came from his neighbor in the Cannon building, young John LeBoutillier (R-N.Y.). "You know he's right down the hall here, so we'd walk over to the Capitol together all the time, and he'd say, 'Gene, you're voting with us, why don't you just join us?' That went on for two or three months and finally he suggested I go see some folks over at the White House, and I did. I saw Lee Atwater and Lyn Nofziger and all those guys."
When Atkinson, like LeBoutillier, lost this November, the first call he received was from Atwater, one of Reagan's top political assistants. He invited Atkinson to the White House again, this time to see if there was some place in the administration -- the Interstate Commerce Commission or the Federal Trade Commission or some other board or agency--that could use his services.
"I guess," Atkinson said, "that they feel some sort of commitment to me since I went with them. It would be hard for me to turn them down, but I don't really want to live in Washington. I commute home every weekend and the only junket I ever took was one trip to Youngstown, Ohio."
Nothing went quite the way Atkinson planned it here, even from the start. "I had this idea that my family would start a new life here," he said. "I got this apartment at the Watergate and thought my wife would live there and my son, Jimmy, would too, and he'd go to Georgetown. But my wife came up for my swearing-in and left the next day, and she's never been back. And Jimmy, he went to Duquesne."
Atkinson said he spent a lot of time last week deciding what scraps of history he would keep -- "a few little notes from George Bush -- what a guy! -- and some notes from Drew Lewis and David A. Stockman, invitations to the White House -- "I think they're historic"--and showing new congressmen around his office, which he rates as near the top. "There's a whole status structure to these offices," he said. "The worst are in Longworth, and the best are in Rayburn."
That being the case, John J. Rhodes (R-Ariz.) has one of the prime pieces of real estate in Congress, a spacious Rayburn office with a stunning night view of the glowing Capitol. Rhodes is retiring after 30 years in the House, seven of them as minority leader. He was a powerful figure for a long time, but now he is gently and with much candor and reflection preparing to go home.
"My decision to leave started coming on in 1979," he said. "The composition of Congress was changing pretty rapidly, and I could feel that a majority of Republican members wanted to go in a direction that I didn't feel comfortable with. A leader can't go one way and the troops another."
So Rhodes announced that he would retire and gave up his leadership post to Robert H. Michel (Ill.), who shepherded the programs of Reaganomics through the House.
Rhodes said he was relieved that the task was not his, that for two years he could speak out against Reagan's defense and economic policies when he felt like it. "I haven't had to deal with the inhibitions of leadership these last two years, and it's been very refreshing," he said. "I've been able to give speeches that were a bit radical."
All of the passages of Rhodes' long political career came back to him last week as he rummaged through cardboard boxes piling up in his office.
"Thirty years worth of memories," he said. "Just yesterday I found these papers from 1964 when there was a real knockdown fight over the Republican Party chairmanship in Arizona. Barry Goldwater and I had to fly back there on the last night. There sure was a lot of blood on the floor. It was fascinating the way that jogged my mind, the way those papers reflected change in people and attitudes."