Congressional Freshmen’s First Fight: Landing a Good Office

WASHINGTON — Representative-elect Maxwell Frost, Democrat of Florida, took a whiff of a Vicks nasal stick his mother had given him.

Representative-elect Erin Houchin, Republican of Indiana, played “The Final Countdown” by Europe on her phone.

Representative-elect Becca Balint, Democrat of Vermont, ran to the front of the room with her arms raised to rally the crowd, only to return to her seat with her head downcast and feet dragging after learning her fate: She would be the ninth-to-last newly elected member of Congress to choose an office.

The cheers and sneers filling an ornate room on Capitol Hill on Friday came from 73 soon-to-be freshman House members who were participating in one of the most anticipated events in their orientation to Congress: the lottery for selecting their new offices.

The congressional equivalent of a college room draw, the ritual can be a stressful and sometimes raucous affair. It was done in person this week for the first time in four years — the process went remote during the pandemic — and the participants brought back beloved traditions like dancing, chanting and sign-waving for good fortune.

The newly minted lawmakers have spent the last two weeks attending an elaborate orientation in Washington, meeting one another and learning how to navigate the tunnels that snake underneath the Capitol and its surrounding buildings and grounds. They got crash courses in how to set up their offices, but it wasn’t until Friday that they had the chance to actually choose one.

“The box we picked from is over 100 years old,” said Representative-elect Wiley Nickel, Democrat of North Carolina, who credited his luck in getting a good draw to refusing to look at the number he had pulled from the mahogany container. “Any time you get to stand in the shoes of people who have come before you is an amazing honor.”

The box dates to the early 20th century, when a blindfolded House page would draw marbles for lawmakers. On Friday, newly elected members took turns pulling buttons bearing the numbers that would determine the order in which they could select an available office.

Over the span of an hour, they cheered and heckled one another, sneering with envy when a colleague pulled a low number and whooping with schadenfreude when someone pulled a high one.

After the draw they left, armed with floor plans, to survey both empty and occupied offices. Staff aides briefed their uninitiated bosses on the pros and cons of each House office building: Longworth, a neo-Classical building lined with Ionic columns, has low ceilings but is more central; Cannon, the Beaux-Arts marble and limestone edifice next door, is the most recently renovated and therefore the most desirable.

Representative-elect Max Miller, Republican of Ohio, was among the lucky first few who landed an office there. He waved a single finger in the air for luck as the crowd cheered him on, chanting, “No. 1.” To his surprise, he drew the first pick, eliciting raucous applause.

Mr. Frost drew a middling 23. He held out hope he could still get a Cannon office, joking to a reporter at one point about starting a dirty-tricks campaign to persuade his colleagues to go elsewhere.

“We should talk smack on Cannon,” he said.

As Mr. Frost browsed through the halls of Longworth, one staffer warned him that mice run there. He was in the market for a newer office to accommodate his allergies, with a large room for staffers.

Representative-elect Robert Garcia, Democrat of California, said he wanted a blue carpet in his office as a symbol of his pride in his party.

When members were done shopping, they returned to make their selections, huddling around laptop computers that showed the remaining available offices.

Nikki Rapanos, chief of staff for Representative-elect Nick LaLota, Republican of New York, stomped when she heard Representative-elect Derrick Van Orden, Republican of Wisconsin, claim her boss’s top choice: a corner office in Longworth with ample space for staff.

Ms. Rapanos had even played “My Way” by Frank Sinatra to channel the spirit of Mr. LaLota, who was not in attendance, and bring her office luck when drawing a number.

Representative-elect Seth Magaziner, Democrat of Rhode Island, who drew the fourth-to-last pick, raised both his hands in resignation after the selection. He tried to make the best of his misfortune.

“They say the best office is the one you’re in,” Mr. Magaziner said.

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