New Members-elect crowd into a committee room in the Rayburn House Office Building, plunging into the centuries-old struggle over real estate known as the office lottery. They draw numbered disks from a silk-lined box. The number determines the order in which they choose rooms from those available after more senior Members have chosen their quarters.
Before construction of the first House Office Building, Representatives worked from their desks in the House Chamber—and for more than a century, they chose their spots through a desk lottery. When the House Office Building opened in 1908, a new lottery, this time for office space, took place in the House Chamber. Every single Member, not just the freshmen, took part. A House Page stood at the rostrum, picking names and numbers from a box, in a tradition dating back to the desk lotteries of the 1840s. Members squinted at floor plans pinned to blackboards. One wag noted that the room “looked very much a like a racetrack with Members crowded around the boards” to place their bets. The lottery determined the order in which Representatives picked their rooms from the floor plans. Each awaited his turn with excitement and trepidation, while reporters watched from the gallery, recording every Member’s reaction to the proceedings.
The perquisites of seniority soon kept the brightest and airiest spaces in the hands of long-serving Representatives, so freshmen could expect to have small, dark, inconvenient rooms. The details of the office lottery changed over the decades, especially for newly elected Members. Shortly after the opening of the Longworth House Office Building in 1933, the House began simply assigning available rooms to incoming freshmen, who typically did not come to Washington before the start of Congress to participate in the lottery. In the post-World War II era, the pre-Congress trip to D.C. became easier to make. The House allowed freshmen to pick their rooms. With the return of the biennial lottery in 1950, eager new legislators began lining up five hours early.
When the Rayburn House Office Building opened in 1965, the House game of musical chairs became more formal, and the lottery has remained remarkably stable in format since then. The proceedings took on a festive atmosphere in the 1960s. Newspapers wrote of the freshmen’s attempts to acquire a bit of real estate as part of the excitement of a new Congress. The press covered the drawings “like the National Football League draft,” one Member told a reporter in 2009.
Good luck charms proliferated on the newly elected Members’ lottery day. Some Representatives crossed their fingers or stirred the chips before picking. Others used flashier methods, from walk-up songs (Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’) to cartwheels. Steve Knight of California claimed his winning number in the 114th Congress office lottery came from pure concentration: “My name is Knight. It was a Jedi mind trick.” Lottery losers received colleagues’ cheers along with the prospect of small offices. Most responded to the friendly ribbing in kind. “I’ve always been against lotteries,” claimed Hervey Machen after coming in dead last in the 89th Congress office lottery, “and now I’m even more against them.”
Lottery number in hand, hunting for an office was tough work for new Members: Space and proximity to the Capitol—the biggest considerations—were in short supply. Some digs had sentimental appeal, such as the office used by young Representative John F. Kennedy when he served in the House. His space was unprepossessing, but by the 1970s had a nostalgia that vaulted it above similar neighbors. Representatives whose parents served in Congress often wanted to be in or at least near the offices they remembered from childhood.
The addition of online floor plans, countdown clocks, and other electronic tools made up the only 21st century changes to the process. No matter the distance from the Chamber or the smallness of the rooms, Members kept hope alive for the next lottery, just two years and an election away. In the meantime, they made the best of it. John Sweeney of New York, who drew last place in 1999, had perhaps the best attitude. On Opening Day, he hung a banner outside Cannon 437 that read “Welcome to the
worst best office on the Hill.”
Sources: Baltimore Sun, 10 Jan 1908; Christian Science Monitor, 19 November 2014; Houston Chronicle, 15 November 1936, Lexington Herald, 3 December 1948; New York Times, 19 January 2009; Roll Call, 11 January 1999 and 3 December 2012; Washington Post, 11 December 1920 and 30 December 1964.Follow @USHouseHistory