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The U.S. Capitol building and Congressional office buildings are seen from the air over Washington, D.C. Some freshman lawmakers use the couches in these office buildings as a home away from home. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
One of the challenges facing California’s 14 Congressional freshmen is where to live in D.C. Democrat Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach sent his wife out to look for housing. Mark Takano, a Democrat from Riverside, found an apartment within walking distance of the Capitol.
But more than a few members choose to sleep on a couch… in their office. Republican Doug LaMalfa of Redding will be joining an estimated 75 members who camp out in their offices when Congress is in session. After a day's work and perhaps dinner with colleagues, he says, you can "read up on some of the legislation or some of the things coming down the pike. You can read yourself to sleep."
LaMalfa, who’s leaving his family back in California, says he wants to get a “real world feeling” about the way Congress works before he commits to a residence. He says a bad decision could be expensive and a “pain in the rear” to get out of.
The first meeting of the 113th Congress was full of pomp and ceremony. Fourteen California freshmen gathered their friends and families and raised their right hands to become the newest members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Their biggest challenge at the moment is staffing their offices.
Six-year-old Madeline Valadao witnessed history on the House floor as the new Congress began its work. "The worst part was having to stand up," she says, "and the good part was when my dad got sworn in."
Her dad is freshman Congressman David Valadao, a Republican from the Central Valley. Valadao landed a prized spot on the House Appropriations Committee. He brought what he calls his “team members” from the two years he served in the California legislature. He’s also hired “two or three” D.C. locals. "As long as they’re open minded and willing to work, and willing to think for themselves," he says, "that’s what I need on my team. I don’t need any ‘yes’ people around me."
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Before they get to sit here, freshman members of Congress have to figure out where they'll work the rest of the time. That's where the office lottery comes in.
On Capitol Hill, this is the day the new crop of freshmen enters a lottery that determines where they’ll work. A Californian got the top opportunity to choose offices.
There's a superstition about dancing when it comes to influencing the luck of the draw in the office lottery. Redding Freshman Republican Doug LaMalfa threw caution to the wind and danced a Michael Jackson moonwalk for luck as he picked his number: 34 out of 70. Democrat Eric Swalwell of Dublin brought his own soundtrack: Journey's "Don't Stop Believing." He drew number 61.
Ventura Democrat Julia Brownley was the first to try dancing - a reluctant swaying to and fro. She won the office lotter and became the first Congressional freshman to choose an office. She wants one in the oldest and grandest House office building. "I seem to like the Cannon building just because of its historical features, I guess."
Brownley says that when she was in the California legislature, the Assembly speaker assigned offices. She says the Congressional process is more fair.
Did Brownley buy a Powerball ticket the other day, too? "I wish I had," she laughed.
One freshman who drew one of the lowest numbers put the best face on it, saying, “there are no bad offices when you’re lucky enough to be here in Congress.”
Newly-elected Democratic Congressman Raul Ruiz has made a few Republican friends during orientation in D.C., but he won't name them because cross-party fraternization is frowned upon.
This week, California’s 14 freshman members of Congress are back in Washington for a second week of orientation. But much of the training is segregated, with Democrats on one side of Capitol Hill and Republicans on another.
During morning sessions, the newbies all learn about setting up a website, how to send constituent mail, how to staff an office. But from lunchtime until late into the evening, Democrats and Republicans are separated.
Republican Congressman Doug LaMalfa of Redding says, during afternoons with his GOP colleagues, he's witnessed the "hot debate" about conference rules and amendments. "They didn’t take very long to get the verbosity up here," he observed.
Even the meals are segregated. Speaker John Boehner’s fancy dinner for newcomers in Statuary Hall was GOP only; Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi held her own party for Democratic freshmen.
Nice view - but it takes Congressional seniority to get it. That's what newly-elected members of California's delegation in the nation's capital are finding out as they enter the lottery for office space.
This is the week California’s 14 Congressional freshmen enter the lottery for office space.
Doug LaMalfa, a newly-elected Republican from Redding, is keeping his expectations low. He says that at the end of the day, "unless you’re one of the really big shots," they’re all about the same.
Most House offices are small, crammed with computers and cubicles, painted the same regulation choice of colors. Don Young of Alaska has a giant bearskin rug on the wall of his reception area. Linda Sanchez of Lakewood has painted her office bright orange. A few are located on the fifth floor of the Longworth House Office Building. Many elevators in Longworth stop at the fourth floor.
But LaMalfa says it all boils down to the view. "Are you going to look at the back of an air conditioner on a roof or you gonna look out towards the Capitol Building." He says he knows it takes a few years of seniority to work up to a view of that domed landmark.
In the meantime, he says, "maybe we’ll just have to have good art inside the office."
He says his wife is picking his lottery number for luck.