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'The Hunger Games' Meets Capitol Hill At The Freshman Office Lottery

Rep.-elect Bruce Poliquin (right) of Maine celebrates after aide Megan Hutson picked a choice number in the congressional office lottery.
J. Scott Applewhite
Rep.-elect Bruce Poliquin (right) of Maine celebrates after aide Megan Hutson picked a choice number in the congressional office lottery.

This is Capitol Hill's version of the The Hunger Games.

The freshman office lottery is part spectacle, part luck and a ruthless, fast-moving process where incoming members try all sorts of tricks hoping to get exactly what they want.

The lottery determines whether rookie lawmakers get a working space with a nice view or one jammed on a high floor that's more like a glorified broom closet.

For a politician, it's one of the few times when measuring the drapes is OK.

On Wednesday, new members were called to the front of a room in alphabetical order to draw a numbered disc from a closed wooden box. The newly elected lawmaker who drew No. 1 would have first choice of offices. No one wanted No. 57.

"Okay, so when I call your name, please come up," the House's superintendent, Bill Weidemeyer, told lawmakers. "Draw a button out of the box here. You can't see in there, but we don't have any spiders or snakes at the bottom of the box."

First up was Rep.-elect Pete Aguilar, R-Calif., who did a good-luck dance. No. 13.

Next was Rick Allen, R-Ga. No dancing there. No. 50.

Barbara Comstock, R-Va., was one of the first lawmakers to arrive Wednesday morning. She'd been seated at the front of the room, waiting for Weidemeyer to reach the letter "C."

She pulled out a disc. It didn't look good.

"Ms. Comstock drew No. 57," he announced.

Dead last. Comstock took her seat as her classmates applauded and offered their faux condolences.

Farther down the alphabet was Rep.-elect Gwen Graham, D-Fla.

New members tried out any number of rituals. Lucky dances, blowing on their hands. One member even had an aide's wife do the honors.

But Graham had a secret weapon.

Paul Woodward, the husband of Graham's campaign manager, did a backflip straight down the center of the aisle.

"It's easy for him. Are you kidding? He backflips like we walk. It's a natural thing," she told reporters later who wanted to see Woodward flip again and again.

The ploy seemed to play off. Graham drew No. 6, allowing her the choice of plum offices.

"I do not care. I know probably you hear that from a lot of members. But I don't care," Graham claimed.

This explanation was typical of the incoming lawmakers, who seemed wary of seeming too joyous over securing a cozy piece of taxpayer-funded real estate.

Those who get stuck with bad numbers know where they're likely going. The dreaded top floor of the Cannon House Office Building. It's tough to get to. Some of the elevators don't even go that high. Saying they are close quarters is an understatement. One staffer even called it Congressional "Siberia."

For Comstock, there was little point in checking out potential digs. She'll be stuck with the leftovers.

"You know I had actually talked to Congressman Robert Hurt who pulled the last number in 2010 so we were laughing about it before saying, 'Well, hey, you've done fine, so we'll be happy with whatever we get,' " she said.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.