Senatorial seclusion: An inside view of Capitol hideaways

A glimpse into Sen. Franken's hideaway.
MinnPost photo by Derek Wallbank
A glimpse into Sen. Franken’s hideaway.

WASHINGTON — Walk through a hallway off the Senate gallery that the general public can’t go down, turn right, then left, past the secluded Senate chaplain’s office, turn left, first right, up a flight of stairs and you come to four plain white doors with no signage — just an office number tacked atop the door frame.

Through the rightmost door is Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s office — the one you don’t know about. It can’t be found on the public directory. Most other senators don’t even know where it is.

This is Klobuchar’s hideaway, a private office near the Senate floor where senators can retreat during gaps in votes, hold private staff meetings or off-the-record conversations with colleagues to twist arms and cut deals on upcoming votes.

Al Franken has one too. His is in the Capitol’s basement, in a corridor that used to house offices for the Capitol Police. Now those who take a turn right from the basement elevator bank then left will find themselves staring at an otherwise unremarkable yellow-painted hallway lined on the left and right with unsigned doors that lead to who knows where.

One of those goes to Franken’s hideaway. He doesn’t know which one.

Klobuchar and Franken’s offices agreed to give MinnPost an exclusive look at these spaces, including allowing photographs of these previously-unseen spaces. For Franken, this will be the first time he’s ever seen what it looks like.

An expanded tradition
Secondary offices are a relic from a time when senators didn’t have any office space at all. At first, the part-time Senate worked on the Senate floor. Everything they needed was at their desks, from writing space to inkwells and even tobacco spittoons.

Over time, the Capitol complex expanded. New office buildings provided space for ever-expanding staffs. Agencies that had been housed in the Capitol, like the Library of Congress and Supreme Court, moved to their own buildings.

As space became available, the most senior senators were given office space, doled out in strict order of seniority without regard to party affiliation. The completion of the Capitol Visitor Center allowed for enough space that every senator now has their own hideaway. Franken’s is among the newest — his office got the keys to it just a few months ago.

The best hideaways are ornate — Ted Kennedy’s former space featured cathedral ceilings, a working fireplace, a private bathroom and a view of the National Mall that’s the stuff of Capitol Hill legends.

That’s not the only legend around these secret spaces though.

Robert Parker, a former aide to Lyndon Johnson, wrote in a book called “Capitol Hill in Black and White” that the married LBJ would invite young ladies back to his hideaways to “take dictation.” According to Parker, that was a common occurrence — as was lying to senatorial spouses so they wouldn’t discover their husband’s dalliances.

Hideaways were used as makeshift speakeasies during prohibition as a convenient police-free zone in which to stash bourbon. Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy swears his old hideaway was haunted.

No ghosts have been reported in Klobuchar or Franken’s hideaways. And when we checked, there was no booze in there either. No, these hideaways serve a more practical purpose.

Rooms with no views — but a purpose
Klobuchar’s hideaway is a small triangle-shaped windowless room with an arc-sloped ceiling. The carpet is a gold-beige with white stars. There’s a small desk to the right with postcards from across Minnesota.

On the wall is a hand-drawn bouquet of flowers titled “Orchard Fantasy,” drawn by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Also mounted prominently is Klobuchar’s Golden Gavel award for spending 100 hours chairing the Senate in her freshman year. It was signed by the late Robert C. Byrd in his own shaky hand, along with an illegible message to the then-junior senator.

Inside Sen. Klobuchar's hideaway.
MinnPost photo by Derek Wallbank
Inside Sen. Klobuchar’s hideaway.

The gold couch three-seater couch — which spans most of the width of the 150-square-foot space — is comfortable enough to nap on, should the Senate go all night on a given issue.

Staffers said her hideaway is most frequently used to return phone calls or to hold a quick staff meeting before or after press conferences in the nearby Senate TV studio.

Franken, in contrast, has never used his hideaway. He’s never even seen it.

Instead, the space (a squareish room about three times the size of Klobuchar’s) is used for staff meetings. Occasionally staffers will even show the room off on constituent tours of the Capitol building.

It’s decorated to make Franken feel at home instantly. A college picture of his wife, Franni, and him sits on the desk, next to one of him with the late Sen. Paul Wellstone and his staffers. On a bookshelf at the rear is a flag Rep. Betty McCollum had flown for him on his first day in the Senate.

The functionality is in the way it has been set up. It’s wired so six people, including Franken, can work out of it in any one time. It would function as a makeshift office built to keep his Washington office humming in case another anthrax attack closed the Hart building where his regular D.C. office is located.

Of course, the information in this article may only be valid for the next four months. Senators get to pick new hideaways in January, at the start of the new session. And given the turnover this year — at least 16 senators won’t be back next year — a host of spaces will be vacated.

If they’re lucky, Klobuchar or Franken’s next hideaway might come with a fireplace, a bathroom, a view or a ghost. Perhaps Franken will even see it next time.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 09/08/2010 - 09:08 am.

    It is great that Senator Amy K has a place to sit and relax and reflect on all the campaign promises she has failed to keep.

  2. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 09/08/2010 - 12:56 pm.

    @Ron

    And those would be?

  3. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 09/08/2010 - 01:42 pm.

    Jeremy,

    Just to name a few of the promises…

    Lowering the national debt
    Lowering the deficit
    Strictly adhering to pay-go

    How quickly you forget?

  4. Submitted by Lance Groth on 09/09/2010 - 04:56 pm.

    How in hell is one senator supposed to lower the national debt, lower the deficit and force everyone else to adhere to pay-go?

    Or do you mean by the usual Republican way – just say “No” to everything?

    Brings to mind Emerson: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Campaign promises often run afoul of a thing called “reality”. Or, as Napoleon (I think) said, “the first casualty of war is the war plan.”

    But then, Ron, I’d guess you’re delighted with health care reform, since that was a campaign promise kept? Or is consistency as a value, well, relative?

  5. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 09/09/2010 - 09:32 pm.

    Lance,

    She made the promises…ask her.

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