Hill staffers sorry to say goodbye to cell phones

For many Capitol Hill staffers it may be more devastating to relinquish your government-issued cell phone or BlackBerry than it was to see your member lose his or her reelection bid this past November.

“It is an essential tool in doing your work,” said Matt Angle, chief of staff to Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas). Frost lost his bid to serve a 14th term in Congress to fellow incumbent Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas).

“I know people change jobs and move on, but the government cell phone is a very good service and an important tool for doing your work,” Angle said.

It is within each member’s discretion to decide who on their staff receives a government-issued cell phone and/or BlackBerry. In most cases, members issue these extra amenities to senior staff, press office workers and, obviously, themselves.

These House phones — as they are referred to around the Hill — are outfitted with a wide range of convenient features.

“The House phone is terrific because it works in the subways, basements and elevators around the Capitol,” said John Michael Gonzalez, chief of staff to Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas).

Bell lost his seat in the state’s March primary as a result of Rep. Tom DeLay’s (R-Texas) statewide redistricting plan.

With a House, phone a staffer can simply dial zero and be directly connected to the Capitol operator, who can in turn connect them to any federal agency or member office. Additionally, staffers only have to dial the last five digits of a number to reach another government-issued cell phone or member office.

Such conveniences are what people say they will miss the most about their cell phones. “It’s kind of like the American Express card,” Gonzalez said. “It definitely says you work on the Hill, and it kind of legitimizes things. A ‘225’ number says someone important is calling me.”

The first three digits of most cell phone numbers on the House side are 225 or 226, while most Senate cell-phone numbers begin with 224.

Gonzalez said that most staffers who received government cell phones also had personal cell phones of their own. “Although when your entire life is Congress, every call on that (House) phone is a personal call,” Gonzalez joked.

The same restrictions that apply to land-line phones in Capitol offices also apply to these government-issued cell phones. Just as staffers are not allowed to make a fundraising call from members offices, they are also prohibited from making fundraising calls from House-issued cell phones.

Some Capitol Hill workers actually feel liberated knowing they will have to give up their phones and BlackBerrys. “I really don’t miss my BlackBerry,” said Frost’s press secretary, Susan McEvoy, who has already turned in her wireless device. “There are pluses and minuses [to it], but I have noticed that I do in fact live and survive without a BlackBerry.”

Many staffers remain hopeful that their careers on the Hill are not yet over. “My hope is that if I land a job back in the House I’ll get my same phone number,” Gonzalez said. “I feel sorry for whoever inherits my old number, though, because when someone gets a chief of staff’s phone number they don’t throw it away.”