- The Washington Times - Monday, January 18, 2010

Shhhhhhh. The perks of Senate membership just got sweeter.

For the first time, all 100 members of the chamber will have their own cloistered hideaways in the U.S. Capitol, traditionally a coveted mark of seniority and clout that lowly freshmen could only dream about.

This year, even junior senators will get their own private, unmarked offices that are a convenient few steps from the Senate chamber.

The addition of a dozen or so newly renovated rooms in the bowels of the Capitol represents a cultural shift in the custom-bound institution, made possible by moving a Capitol Police facility from the building’s basement into the new, $621 million Capitol Visitor Center. The vacated space inside the Capitol’s West Front made room for even shunned members of the Senate — Roland W. Burris, Illinois Democrat, for example — and freshmen minority Republicans to move in.

While both parties make claims and counterclaims about openness in government, some things never change. The first rule of Senate hideaways: Only senators talk about them. And then, selectively and only about their own.

The only ways to know who occupies which office are to be invited in, witness a senator entering or exiting, or see a home-state newspaper lying outside the door in the morning. The hush-hush tradition creates sanctuaries for legislative work and meetings, as well as less official business — maybe even a nap.

Hideaways occupy ancient nooks on all four floors of the historic building and are institutions within an institution and one of the last vestiges of nonpartisanship in an increasingly divided chamber. The most senior senators get first dibs on the best quarters, regardless of party.

They bear room numbers but no names. Some are hidden in plain sight, along corridors used by thousands of unknowing tourists. The portals to others hide beyond massive statues. Still others are crammed in the spaces around rotundas, or at the ends of hallways with multiple sets of stairs. Many can’t be found without a guide.

Those occupied by such senior senators as Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, and Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, tend to be grand affairs, with bathrooms, fireplaces, chandeliers and million-dollar views of the Washington and Lincoln memorials or the Supreme Court.

The newly renovated basement hideaways feature no such frills. These offices and some of their blueprints, examined by the Associated Press over the past year, reveal rooms that tend to be around 300 square feet, with low ceilings, no windows or bathrooms, and furnished with stock Senate tables and chairs. One such space, to be occupied by second-term Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Delaware Democrat, is cramped with a desk, sofa and small conference table.

The last two basement hideaways to be renovated have just received a soft yellow coat of paint. A few doors down, a couch sits still covered in plastic, awaiting its new occupant.

No one will talk about how much the taxpayers are spending to create the new offices. The famously discreet Senate Rules Committee, which distributes hideaways and handles all related matters, refused comment. A spokeswoman for the Architect of the Capitol’s office, which performs the renovations, referred a reporter to the Rules Committee.

Committee Chairman Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, one of the most camera-friendly members of the Senate, declined an interview request on the subject. Ranking Republican Robert F. Bennett of Utah did not respond to a similar request. Two requests for comment from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, who by tradition would be aware of the changes, went unanswered by his usually responsive press office.

And so on.

“There’s nothing inherently wrong with having hideaways. It’s a long-standing tradition,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a private watchdog group.

It might even be more fair for every senator to have one, rather than just the longest-serving members, she added. But refusing to talk about how much is being spent on them, when it probably would have been spent anyway to repurpose the space, is “secrecy for its own sake,” she said. “They make it seem worse than it probably is.”

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide