The Capitol keeps its secrets well. Visitors marvel at the emptiness of the halls, the stealth of those who keep the legislature running. “Where do they all go?” the out-of-towners ask, “Where can I see the action?”
Staffers, reporters and members say business is done wherever necessary. Walking and talking simultaneously is a required skill because deals are made and stories broken on the run. The one vote needed to break a bill out of committee can depend on bumping into someone at the right time and in the right place.
“You don’t have an important conversation out in the public area,” said Jim Specht, press secretary and deputy chief of staff to new House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.). The stakes can be doubly high for members, he added, as “they do a lot of subterfuge to avoid dealing with each other” while simultaneously courting and avoiding media attention.
Between 11 p.m. quorum calls and 7 a.m. meetings, the packed and short congressional workweek makes getting a peaceful moment alone almost impossible.
“I’d like to know” where the calm spots are, joked Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “The House gym, that’s where I go to get away.” Perhaps Graham could take a cue from Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.), who said he heads to the Old Senate Chamber near the second-floor majority offices.
Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) prefers fresh air.
“I enjoy the walk, when the weather’s good, out by the visitors center” construction site, Chafee said. “I love seeing the cranes working, the big ditch that was out there, going deep, deep into the ground … pile drivers, all that good stuff.”
Sleep is another coveted commodity. Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) has seen colleagues snoozing in the cloakroom.
“When I need to take a nap, I go into the Marble Room,” said Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah). Behind frosted glass doors at the back of the Senate floor, the Marble Room is a press- and staff-free zone.
For party leaders and their staffs, a special vigilance is necessary to appear just accessible enough. “It wasn’t as if we didn’t want to be recognized in the halls,” said Arne Christensen, former aide to Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), “but we didn’t want to be recognized much.”
When a crush of constituents invades valuable office space, a key sit-down can happen in the cafeteria — the Rayburn restaurant in particular, where acoustics are perfect for whispering, or the Old Family Dining Room, near the north first-floor exit, or the cramped, closet-like burrows on the third floor near the Senate press galleries.
Or even the phone booths. A favorite place for a quiet conversation is beneath the heavy curtains and recessed windows of the second floor, where the only eavesdropper is an 8-foot statue of Sen. William Borah (R-Idaho, 1907-1940).
“I’ve found, in this place, you can’t really keep many secrets,” said Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.). “If you say it’s secret, they’re going to talk about it more.
“There shouldn’t be secrets here,” he went on. “This place should be open. People should have access. The press should know what’s going on.” Nonetheless, Murtha, noted the antechambers off committee rooms as popular spots to plot.
On the Senate side, tucked around corners and behind unmarked doors, hideaways provide as many as 70 senior lawmakers valuable real estate to make deals away from prying eyes. During key votes, hideaways have a way of becoming common knowledge.
Take the plight of Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) during his defection from the GOP in 2001. Jeffords was given no quarter, his usual haunts rendered useless because “people were stalking him by the dozens,” said Jon Frandsen, a freelance writer who was then Gannett’s congressional correspondent. “If you ever got him, he wouldn’t talk to you.”
Back when his boss switched parties, Erik Smulson, Jeffords’s press secretary, received mock training in Capitol escape routes.
“At first it would just be one or two reporters who just happened to be in the right hallway at the right time,” Smulson said. Aides crowded into Jeffords’s hideaway with him between floor actions, until “you’d come back for the next vote and there would be 20 reporters, 20 photographers … they kind of smoked us out.”
Smulson declined to name his current sanctuaries — go figure. Still, rooms S-207 and -211, near the Senate floor, and a row of unmarked offices off Statuary Hall are used for last-minute meetings. There are at least five ways to leave the Senate floor and two back exits to flee the Mansfield Room.
“Wherever there’s a couple of chairs, that’s where we do a meeting,” said Cody Wertz, an aide to Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.). Elaine Povich, formerly with Newsday, asserts that “a meeting can happen in a restroom.”
On the House side, safety in numbers holds truer than ever, as throngs of members heading from meetings to votes and back help facilitate secret chats on the fly. Members like Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.), adjust by becoming secluded spots unto themselves, exuding a placid aura at the busiest of moments.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” McCotter said after he finished smoking a cigarette in the Speaker’s Lobby while reporters darted to and fro. “I never have time to go to a little spot.” On further thought, he remembered Bible study, which he attends regularly in the Family Room on the third floor of the House.
Ultimately, successful Capitol encounters combine serendipity and quick transit. Stairways are useful — Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) likes to steer reporters to the flight on the Rotunda’s west side, and then he dashes to the tunnels below. Subways are crucial — Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) have remained on the basement level near the tracks for undisturbed talks. And nothing says “get out” like solid metal elevator doors slamming shut.
Frandsen recalls the mad rush of President Clinton’s impeachment trial, when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), then a freshman, powwowed in an elevator as it climbed up and down, up and down.
“Every now and then the elevator would stop,” its Senators Only light still on, “and there they’d be,” Frandsen said with a laugh.
Notoriously office-bound, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) can be a hard man to reach. Aspiring powerbrokers might latch on to one trick for getting him alone: hang out by his bathroom.
“The Speaker has a private bathroom outside his suite,” said a Hill regular, “He has to leave and walk through an open area,” so it’s possible to catch him if you stand and wait in the corridor.
Indecent, no? “I never ask him when he’s going” to the washroom, the source said, “but I wait for him to come out.”
In the end, some forgo secret spaces, regarding seclusion as akin to Santa Claus — nice to hope for, but just not real.