A night at the Capitol

The Capitol leads two lives, and never more so than now. With more than 100 new lawmakers set to move into their congressional offices by the end of the month, the Capitol’s normal nightlife — when teams of custodians, electricians, carpenters and other laborers pick up after another legislative day — buzzes even louder, with furniture movers, carpet installers, painters and others preparing for the great biennial office swap that comes with each new Congress.

After any given congressional workday, when members and staff retire to their homes, an entire army of workers comes to Capitol Hill, scrubbing, vacuuming, waxing, buffing, bailing trash and recycling — in short, trying to return the building to a state of beauty. 

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Now that army has 31 days to prepare more than 250 offices for new occupants. At the helm of this effort for the House is Bonnie Lemonds, the night superintendent whose office suite is tucked away in the southeast corner of the Rayburn House Office Building’s basement. 

There, Lemonds and four others bounce between their work stations and regular spot-checks throughout the buildings as they keep track of approximately 250 custodial workers, laborers and painters. 

“Laborers will go into the soon-to-be-moved-into office bathrooms, safe rooms and kitchens and make sure they’re stripped and waxed,” said Lemonds, who began working on Capitol Hill as a custodian in 1978. 

“And custodial services will go in to make sure bathrooms and carpets are clean, and the painters will come in and paint. And if they need to be changed, the carpets will get swapped out. If doors or lights are broken, we’ll fix those. Whatever needs to be done, we’re doing it,” she said. 

Dec. 30 is the date of the last move-in, and with as many as 12 rooms that need to be ready for occupancy each day, the night shift in the House has to make every minute count, Lemonds said. 

To get a grasp on what this daunting task looks like and how it’s going, The Hill spent a series of nights from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. on Capitol Hill last week, following many of the crews and talking to officials in charge of the operations. 

The following is what a typical December night in the Capitol looks like. 

10:05 p.m. — An electrician stretches thick electrical cable into the ceiling of the Cannon House Office Building’s basement to be used as conduits for the building’s emergency generator. He says they’ve been working on the project for weeks and are not nearly done.

10:15 p.m. — Approximately 10 custodians haul buckets of trash to a drop-off point on the south side of the Cannon basement near the parking lot entrance as a set of computer speakers in the main recycling room pumps the disco tune “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.” Dozens of large trash and recycling bins begin to collect in the area. A forklift shuttles them to one of two bailers who have been working 12-hour shifts for weeks because there’s been so much trash.

10:30 p.m. — The third floor of Cannon looks as though a cluster bomb of office desks, shelves, chairs and coat racks has exploded. Outgoing Rep. Frank Kratovil’s (D-Md.) office is almost completely empty, with only its wooden bookcases and a foam football dotting the blue carpet.

10:45 p.m. — A five-man crew of painters begins to tackle Rep. Stephen Lynch’s (D-Mass.) office, putting tape around the room’s molding and along the edges of the walls. The paint will dry in a couple of days, one painter says, and then laborers will put up the window shades and drapes while new carpet is laid down.

11:05 p.m. — Trucks full of square sections of carpet stand in the Longworth dock as workers load them onto mechanical dollies and take them to Rep. Joe Sestak’s (D-Pa.) and Rep. John Linder’s (R-Ga.) former offices. There, workers are taking up the existing carpet. U.S. Capitol Police officers hustle to and from their posts in Longworth as they swap shifts.

11:35 p.m. — Four workers test the latch speed and resistance of the emergency containment doors installed throughout the Longworth building earlier this year to give the nearby stairwells protection in the event of a fire.

12:15 a.m. — The member service center, where retiring or unseated members have each been assigned a cubicle to work from in the Rayburn basement, sits quiet with nothing but the sound of air vents rattling in the ceilings. Reminders of their former lives are perched on the lawmakers’ desks, like Rep. Steve Kagen’s (D-Wis.) name plaque, which used to be next to his office door. 

12:45 a.m. — A worker rides on a “chariot” buffer down the north basement hallway in Rayburn, giving the floor a shine, as another two laborers sit on 12-foot stepladders, working on rewiring the electrical conduits on the building’s first floor. 

1 a.m. — Two laborers take their “lunch” break in the Longworth cafeteria vending machine room, pulling sandwiches and canned sodas from a cooler.

1:20 a.m. — Rep. Rodney Alexander’s (R-La.) office is cleaned and vacuumed.

1:35 a.m. — A soulful rendition of the Christmas song “Silent Night” crackles from a boombox on the House floor as a custodial worker cleans the cloakrooms and empties trash and recycling bins while polishing the brass railings throughout the chamber. 

1:50 a.m. — The House and Senate leadership offices are cleaned, and trash and recycling is emptied. 

2:20 a.m. — Dozens of cleaning carts stand like parked cars outside offices in the Hart Senate Office Building as cleaners methodically make their way through offices, like Sen. Kent Conrad’s (D-N.D.) and Sen. Robert Menendez’s (D-N.J.) on the fifth floor. Most cleaning carts contain a duster, broom, dustpan, trash bag, toilet paper, Windex, paper towels, latex gloves, an all-purpose cleaner, non-acid disinfectant, an odor neutralizer, duct tape and sometimes a drink, like juice.

2:45 a.m. — Three painters paint a series of temporary wall panels in the Senate first-floor hallway that runs between the Crypt and the Capitol’s north entrance. They paint it beige for an upcoming art exhibit while a radio plays softly.

3 a.m. — A man in a chariot buffer cleans the upper floor of the Capitol Visitor Center.

3:25 a.m. — A trash bag sits on the inner stairwell leading from Senate Chaplain Barry Black’s office. A self-proclaimed avid popcorn eater, several empty bags of popcorn create a buttery smell throughout the upper Senate floors.

3:50 a.m. — A laborer stops at the Wolfgang Puck coffee machine in the Longworth cafeteria to get a last boost before finishing up the night’s work.

4:20 a.m. — Rep. Suzanne Kosmas’s (D-Fla.) former office on the second floor of Cannon sits open with its lights on. Picture-hanging nails protrude from the beige walls, and a chunk of plaster is missing from one wall. The bookcases have been moved into the center of the room, which looks as though it will be painted in the coming days. 

4:30 a.m. — Across the hall in 235 Cannon, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) district office gets cleaned and vacuumed.

5 a.m. — A crew of laborers put the finishing touches on Rep. Patrick Murphy’s (D-Pa.) former office on the sixth floor of Longworth. They are installing a new set of shades and wedging paint scrapers into the windowsills to crack the paint seal.

5:20 a.m. — A worker climbs a large stepladder in Rep. G.K. Butterfield’s (D-N.C.) third floor Rayburn office as he installs a new set of blue drapes over the returning congressman’s windows.

5:40 a.m. — Longworth cafeteria workers prep for the day, straightening the potato chip displays and filling the hot water trays.

6 a.m. — Laborers begin to trickle down to their respective buildings’ locker rooms, ready to punch out for the day. Assistant Night Superintendent Sidney McNeil tours the Longworth building to check the rooms that are supposed to be available for move-ins that day, making sure everything is taken care of. 

6:15 a.m. — Custodians mop the CVC floors one final time in preparation for the day’s traffic.

6:35 a.m. — A worker trucks newspapers through the office-building hallways on a dolly, plopping them down in front of offices in neat bundles.

6:45 a.m. — The first wave of congressional staffers begins to arrive along with the dayshift custodial and laborer employees. The first rays of sunshine peek through the clouds.