WASHINGTON — While Claude Pepper lived, his office was a five-room suite, among the best on Capitol Hill. With Pepper gone and no successor in place, his staff is winding up his work in two storerooms with an air shaft for a view.
"Our quarters are so cramped, we figured the animal rights people would be protesting," said Rochelle Jones, longtime press secretary for the Florida congressman.
The experiences of Pepper's staff undoubtedly differ little from those of Reps. Jim Wright and Tony Coelho, who resigned, and Mickey Leland and Larkin Smith, who were killed in recent plane crashes.
Pepper, the champion of the elderly, enjoyed the power and perks that grow with seniority, and his staff shared them, too. When he died, the perks died for his staff as well.
'It's Over With'
"When a member dies, it's over with," said Ray Colley, the deputy clerk of the House who supervises the transitions when a congressman leaves and another takes his place.
When Pepper staffers returned from his funeral in June, there was a message from the clerk's office: The telephone should no longer be answered "Congressman Claude Pepper's office." It was to be "18th Congressional District of Florida."
At about the same time, Jones recalls, a procession of congressmen and their staffs came by to look over Pepper's office, which was in a prime location in the Rayburn Office Building--commensurate with his 27 years in the House.
"They were really ghoulish people looking over the remains," Jones said. "Five different people put in a bid for the office."
When congressional suites become vacant, other members bid on them and they are awarded on the basis of seniority.
The visitors included congressmen and others who wanted post-death autographs on books and pictures--before the automatic signing pen was put away.
"I can understand the staff's concern about not being able to answer 'Sen. Pepper' but he's not Sen. Pepper any more," Colley said. Many old-timers on Capitol Hill still referred to Pepper as senator, since he served in the Senate for 14 years.
Some of the Pepper perks were gone before the sun set on his grave.
"I had a parking space in Rayburn that was just great--a few steps from the elevator," Jones said. "One day I came in and found (Texas congressman) Jack Brooks using my parking space. It was my notification that the space was no longer mine."
Pepper died May 30 at age 88. The funeral was June 5 in Florida. His congressional seat will be filled in a special election Aug. 29, but until then his staff takes care of district business.
At the end of June, the Pepper staff was told to move into two rooms among storage spaces on the sixth floor of the Longworth House Office Building next door--with a view of an air shaft. The move meant packing up the congressman's belongings, first for the office switch, then for transfer to the Federal Records Center.
"Pepper was in office from 1962. He never threw away a piece of paper," Jones said. "I found personnel files of people who worked there in the 1960s.
"The Rayburn office was filled with memorabilia. It was a living museum, pictures of Pepper with all the presidents he's known since Roosevelt, pictures of Pepper with celebrities. One wall was filled just with legislation he had participated in, from the cross-Florida barge canal to Social Security reform."
Pepper's personal things, including the hundreds of pictures and dozens of pens from bill signings, will go to the Mildred and Claude Pepper Library at Florida State University in Tallahassee.
Pepper's office was assigned by the clerk's office to Rep. Dale E. Kildee (D-Mich.), who is in his seventh term.
"We are very careful to answer the phone '18th Congressional District of Florida,' " Jones said. "There is usually a pause, then 'is this Congressman Pepper's office?' People still call up; they need help getting a visa; a year-old Medicare claim hasn't been paid."
The staff toils on, winding up the Pepper era.
"People have stopped answering our phone calls," Jones said.
That, in Washington, is the ultimate loss of power.