J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Departing Members of Congress Find Their Work Benefits Slipping Away -- Or Already Gone

Served for four decades? Doesn't matter, they're disconnecting your phone anyway.

Rep. Howard Coble hasn't started his Christmas shopping.

Like many lame-duck lawmakers, the veteran North Carolina Republican has been consumed with the last-minute legislation before Congress, including government spending, defense authorization, and a host of other bills. And Coble, like 63 of his colleagues, is preparing to exit Congress.

Leaving this job, it turns out, is a lot of work.

In their final days in office, lawmakers must pack up their belongings, sell their residences, and help their staffers find new posts—all while handling the requisite trials of lame-duck negotiating. Many of them are doing all this from a cubicle. In a basement.

"It's more than a full-time job," said Sen. Carl Levin, who has the added burden of trying to shepherd a must-pass defense authorization bill through the Senate as chairman of the Armed Services Committee. "It's OK," Levin said. "It's exhilarating, challenging."

"You've got to multitask in this place," said Rep. George Miller, who in recent days has helped negotiate a deal on multiemployer pension plans and contested a water bill. Coble said those legislative and logistical challenges have outgoing members "very frantic," adding that he's "packing up 30 years worth of time."

All that time in the House does Coble and other veterans little good when it comes to their end-of-Congress work space. As newcomers move in and up-and-comers claim new offices, the outgoing members have been consigned to a single room in the basement of the Rayburn House Office building. (Senators are a bit more fortunate and get to keep their offices to the end.)

Dozens of legislative titans are spending their last days in office in tiny gray portable cubicles, each with a single swivel chair and a folding chair for a staffer. The row of cubicles stretches on and on down the narrow room, which is only a bit larger than the office House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi will inhabit by herself next term. "It's very limited and very cramped," Coble said, "but I understand they have new folks coming in." Rep. Jim Moran called the new digs "a rude awakening."

Moran had his own tale of office woe. "I was over in Buck McKeon's office when they were pulling out the wires to his computer and his phone," he said. "I was objecting—'Gosh, this is a guy who's served for 38 years. He's chairman of the Armed Service Committee. Can't you give him a little slack?' And the guy says, 'Don't worry, Congressman, we just did the same thing in your office.' "

A few have avoided such office-drone ignominy. Outgoing committee chairs, like House Intelligence head Mike Rogers and McKeon, still have their committee spaces from which to work. And Rep. Spencer Bachus said he has an office annex in Rayburn that Speaker John Boehner has allowed him to retain through the end of his term.

Bachus faced an unusual packing challenge. The massive model train collection that covered the walls of his office has been meticulously stored, with each train placed into its original box. Most of the trains will be sent to the University of Alabama, where they will be displayed alongside the doll collection of Mary Harmon Bryant, the wife of legendary football coach Bear Bryant. Like most members, Bachus is also packing up years worth of papers, which he plans to donate to Auburn University (he has degrees from both Alabama schools, so each gets a share of his legacy).

For Levin, who's been in the Senate for 36 years, the papers pose a monumental challenge. "You name it—everything from old letters to responses to reports to drafts," he said. "We've got hundreds of boxes that are going to archives."

After the papers are boxed, many office artifacts will be coming home with the members—though maybe not for long. "My wife has given me a month to get rid of half of it," Bachus said. Moran said his office paraphernalia is currently occupying a storage unit—but acknowledged his nearby Northern Virginia district means he won't have to transport it far.

For those, like Levin and Coble, who are moving home full-time, they face the added challenge of moving out and selling their Washington residences as well. Coble said he hopes to close on his home this week, while Levin estimated it would take months just to get his cleared out. "My wife doesn't think it will, but I do," he said.

Miller is selling the house he shares with Sens. Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin, leaving the upper chamber's No. 2 and 3 Democrats searching for a new place to live.

Bachus said he's keeping his Capitol Hill condo for now, as he plans to stay involved with several D.C.-based charities. And Rogers's new radio gig will keep him in Washington, his spokesman said.

Rogers isn't the only one eyeing a post-congressional career. Coble said he's considering offers from several law firms, and Levin said he's weighing options back in Michigan.

Members say they're looking out for more than just themselves as they close up shop. Bachus said he's made 20-25 phone calls to recommend staffers for new jobs, and believes he will make his goal of helping all of his aides find work before the new year. Other members also said they've been making sure staffers land on their feet.

Once the term ends, members say they'll have more time for normal activities. Miller laughed when asked if he'd begun picking out Christmas presents. "Oh hell no!" he said. Bachus said he hadn't either, but "my wife is a professional shopper." Coble intends to start his Christmas shopping soon, though his years in Washington have taught him that congressional gridlock might push it back yet again. "Hopefully," he said, "I'll be home next week."

This article appears in the December 11, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.