Exiting lawmakers begin packing it in

Packing up offices, closing down their Washington homes, giving farewell speeches and saying goodbye to colleagues — the departing members of Congress have long to-do lists before their replacements are sworn in on Jan. 3.

Not to mention they’re trying to pass legislation to avoid the “fiscal cliff” and decide what their futures hold — some are returning to civilian life after years of serving in Congress.

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The exiting lawmakers all agree on one thing: They are going to miss their colleagues the most.

“I’ll miss them all. Obviously, those you work with most closely you’ll miss the most, but I’ll miss the Senate. There’s no question about that,” said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who is retiring after two terms.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) agreed.

“So many of them are friends. These are good people, very well-intentioned, work incredibly hard and it’s a tough business to reach agreement on these difficult questions,” he noted.

Despite the friendships that have formed over late nights of debates and votes, no one wanted to name a specific colleague.

“I won’t cite a particular senator. I have many friends and we look forward to being in touch with them for the rest of our lives,” said Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), who’s been in the upper chamber for 36 years.

Freshman Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), who lost a close election contest, will take a different memory with him.

“What is most touching is that every morning when I wake up to do my run, you run past the Capitol and the lights are shining on it. You can’t beat that,” he said.

As for what they’re going to miss the least, well, those answers came quicker and easier.

“Filibusters,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who served four terms. “The long gridlock. All that stuff.”

“The partisan bickering. That really gets old,” Conrad noted.

West felt the same.

“The inefficiency. As a military guy, we like efficiency. … So much is pushed off to the last minute and it’s crisis management. And I think that’s a horrible way to run a country.”

Freshman Rep. Jeff Landry (R-La.) echoed that sentiment: “The ridiculousness of how they run this organization.”

For other lawmakers, it’s the commute.

Gone are the days when members of Congress moved their families to Washington and made permanent homes in the nation’s capital.

These days, the majority of them arrive in D.C. on Tuesday and leave Thursday night or Friday morning so they can work in their districts and be with their families.

It can be a brutal schedule of flights, layovers and time spent hanging out in airports.

“I’ve gone home almost every weekend for the last 14 years, and we’re on Pacific Time in Nevada, and it does wear on you,” said Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), who served seven terms.

Sixteen-term Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) agreed.

“Travel and, frankly, the responsibility,” he said.

But Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who served eight terms, saw the bright side.

“What I’m going to be most pleased about is not getting on and off airplanes and [dealing with] the TSA,” he said.

Forty-eight lawmakers lost their election bids this November, while another 35 decided to retire at the end of their term, leaving the Capitol in a period of transition before the 113th Congress begins.

The newly elected lawmakers’ offices have been decided; it’s just a matter of getting them moved in.

But it’s not as simple as out with the old and in with the new.

Office space is decided by seniority, and incoming lawmakers don’t move into areas left by retiring members, especially those who had prime Capitol Hill real estate. Returning members often switch office space so they can move to the larger, better-located suites their departing colleagues are exiting.

The Architect of the Capitol (AoC) helps coordinate the moves.

Departing members of the House are already out of their offices — they had to be out by Dec. 1 — and were moved into the equivalent of congressional displaced housing: cubicles in the basements of House office buildings, known as departing member service centers.

“It’s not like you lose and just walk off into the sunset. You’ve got to pack everything up. And as an outgoing member, they kick you out of your office, so I’ve had a cubicle up in Longworth that’s been my office space,” said Rep. Mark Critz (D-Pa.).

Berkley is selling her D.C. home in addition to having her office packed up.

“I have 14 years of memory and memorabilia that need to go one place or another. And saying goodbye to staff and people I’ve really come to love in Washington. That hurts too,” she said.

It’s a bit of congressional chaos: The hallways of House office buildings are crowded with furniture — desks, chairs, lamps — as offices are emptied, painted and refurbished.

The AoC staff can turn around eight to 12 offices a day, getting them cleaned and ready for their new occupant.

“We’re good at what we do,” a staffer with the AoC’s office told The Hill.

It’s a different matter in the Senate, where the offices are bigger. That process takes several months and it’s the newly elected lawmakers who are in temporary housing. In this case, they’re lodged in the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

Senior senators often take over their departing colleagues’ space — same as in the House — and are moved one office at a time, by seniority. Those moves are expected to be done by spring.

Several departing lawmakers are helping their staffs, who are also out of jobs, find work.

“Seventeen employees are out of work, so I’m trying to help them find jobs. So it’s really been sort of a whirlwind,” Critz said.

He noted that when he took over after Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) died, he kept the staff together, and now they’re all scattering. “It’s emotional,” he said. “It’s the finality of it.”

And then there’s what’s next for the exiting members. Most are in the process of working that out.

“The last thing on my agenda is retirement. I’m not going to retire,” said Nelson.

Lieberman agreed: “I’m not going to fully retire. I’m going to go on to something else, whatever it is.”

Rep. Landry, however, has some fun planned.

“I’m going to try to duck-hunt from Jan. 1 through the 25th,” he said.

And it’s not a permanent exile. Lawmakers can also come back — either to visit or to rejoin their colleagues.

“Victory and defeat is temporary,” Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) said with a smile last week during his farewell address on the Senate floor. “Depending on what happens and where we go, all of us, we may, obviously, meet again.”


Russell Berman contributed.