A raw Boston rain turned umbrellas inside out. But inside the dry GMC van, a group of residents chatted about litter, the cost of pizza, and other neighborhood matters. Parked by Macaluso’s Sundries on a Wednesday in 1977, Representative Joe Moakley’s 22-foot mobile office welcomed his North End constituents to talk about their interests and concerns.
Congressional mobile offices emerged at the intersection of U.S. politics and love for automobiles. Motorhomes made camping more comfortable beginning in the early 20th century, and after legislation created the interstate highway system in 1956, traveling in a camper became much quicker. As the middle class expanded, “weekend warriors” took to the road. Trailers provided families with a comfortable way to vacation—but Representatives turned these vacation homes into offices.
In addition to keeping offices on Capitol Hill and in their districts, over the years some Members of Congress, like Moakley, transformed trailers and RVs into office space. These recreational vehicles let Representatives and their staff visit constituents where they lived, shopped, and worked. Francis Dorn, who in 1952 became one of the earliest congressional adopters of the mobile unit, hitched a trailer to his sedan and met with residents of his Brooklyn district on Saturday afternoons. “The rented trailer enables him to provide the comfort of a waiting room and an office for a constituent to discuss his problem privately,” the New York Times reported.
A 1959 photograph shows Michigan Representative Robert Griffin stepping out of his motorhome office. Parked on dirt, in front of towering evergreens, the trailer even had a welcome sign posted outside its open door. The camper’s wooded location alludes to the normal use of the motorhome: vacationing. But Griffin’s shiny trailer actually functioned as an unconventional workplace that served the residents of his district.
Using recreational vehicles, Members could reach constituents far from district offices. They became part of campaigns, demonstrating to voters that a candidate would go the extra mile. During her 1966 campaign for a seat representing Boston suburbs, Margaret Heckler told voters that, in addition to two district offices, she would have a mobile office. Tom Downey, a Member from Long Island, “made one campaign promise,” recalled a staffer who operated the van on weekends, “and that was to have this mobile unit.”
Soon after the mass-produced Winnebago hit the market, William Moorhead parked his office at senior citizens’ apartment buildings in his Pittsburgh district. In 1973, he heard questions about Social Security, pensions, and inflation in his rented RV. Across the country, mobile offices provided both accessibility and visibility: “The people coming into the van are new faces,” a Moakley staff member from Massachusetts explained. “They’re people who might not take their problems to the congressman if the van weren’t in their neighborhood.”
After the House permitted Representatives to use official funds to rent mobile offices in the 1970s, their popularity grew. The press called them “Congressmobiles.” In 1977, the Christian Science Monitor reported that 55 Members used mobile units, more than double the number of 1975. One lessee, New York Representative Ned Pattison, rented his Sightseer II from Bumstead Cars Leasing. A photograph shows him bundled-up and standing in snow outside the RV in 1978.
It wasn’t always smooth driving for “Congressmobiles.” Just as motorhomes became popular among Members in the late 1970s, the energy crisis hit, spiking fuel prices and eventually leading to gas rationing. California Representative Jim Lloyd parked his RV for several months in 1979, when it became too difficult to fill the camper’s tanks with 35 gallons of gas.
After the fuel crisis ended, one Representative encountered a different kind of mobile office issue. In 1981, Virginia Representative Stan Parris received calls complaining about his 25-foot Winnebago. For weeks, staff members heard that the RV “was speeding, running other motorists off the road and otherwise breaking the laws of Virginia,” the Washington Post reported. But mobile unit staff said the camper was miles away at the time of each incident. “Finally, a break came when a woman called to complain the ‘office’ had been sitting in front of her house for four days, taking up three parking places.” When a staff assistant drove to the woman’s house, he found a duplicate of the real motorhome, complete with a congressional seal. The twin Winnebago had formerly been leased to Tennessee Representative Harold Ford, and the congressional seal had not been removed from the vehicle—even after a Virginia man rented the RV.
Although issues like the energy crisis and unauthorized RVs slowed down mobile offices, Members found trailers, vans, and RVs to be useful tools for constituent service in the late 20th century. “Congressmobiles” gave Representatives a space to connect with residents, taking politics into the parking lot.
Sources: Boston Globe, 5 November 1966; Christian Science Monitor, 13 April 1977; Los Angeles Times, 23 August 1976, 17 May 1979, 29 July 1979, 2 October 1981; New York Times, 24 June 1956, 29 April 1973, 23 April 1975, 17 August 1975, 24 August 1990; Washington Post, 2 February 1978, 16 July 1981; Report of the Clerk of the House from July 1, 1977, to September 30, 1977, 95th Cong., 1st sess., H.Doc. 95-265 (1977); Report of the Clerk of the House from April 1, 1978, to June 30, 1978, 95th Cong., 2nd sess., H.Doc. 95-372 (1978); Judy Carlile, A Functional Analysis of Congressional Member Office Operations, Report 81-116, 14 May 14 1981, Congressional Research Service; Donald F. Wood, RVs and Campers, 1900 through 2000: An Illustrated History (Hudson, WI: Iconografix, 2002); Terence Young, “A Brief History of the RV,” Smithsonian Magazine, 4 September 2018, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/brief-history-rv-180970195/; Jim Morrison, “Commemorating 100 Years of the RV,” Smithsonian Magazine, 24 August 2010, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/commemorating-100-years-of-the-rv-56915006/; “Energy Crisis,” Smithsonian National Museum of American History, accessed 25 September 2019, https://americanhistory.si.edu/american-enterprise-exhibition/consumer-era/energy-crisis.Follow @USHouseHistory