WASHINGTON _ “Please! Please! Please!,” congressional staff member Rebecca Deguzman begged in a desperate e-mail message to other senatorial staffers. “I need one June 15th and three June 24th’s. I want to be creative with trades since I have so little to offer.”
Deguzman, tour coordinator in the office of Sen. Charles Robb (D-Va.), was frantically trying to nab one of Capitol Hill’s most valuable commodities: White House tour tickets.
The tickets are perks from members of Congress to visiting constituents, campaign contributors, lobbyists – VIPs of all stripes. To get the precious grayish-white tickets, Congressional staff members will trade almost anything. They fight looming deadlines, intense pressure to please visitors and 11th-hour requests.
“It does get crazy around here,” Deguzman said. “We probably get about 100 requests for tickets a week.”
So many requests creates a classic supply-and-demand crunch. And then there’s Congress’ pecking order. The tickets go to congressional offices by first-come, first-serve. But status matters too. Congressional leaders get 17 a week. Senators get 15 tickets a week. And representatives get only 10 a week.
To complicate matters, congressional offices must tell the White House the number of tickets and for which days – 35 days in advance.
That makes last-minute requests a full-scale adventure. Take, for example, what Deguzman of Sen. Robb’s office, had to do in March. Her mission: Get 10 tickets for Virginia VIPs in a mere three days.
“I got three tickets, and I was so proud,” she said. Not good enough. Call the other 99 senate offices, ordered the chief of staff, for the last seven. “The kicker is, I eventually got all 10 tickets,” she said wryly. “And they didn’t even use all of them.”
But they wouldn’t be so desperate, staff members said, if the supply of tickets was bigger.
“This system is whacked,” said Patrick Nunley, staff assistant for Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “It makes it very difficult to serve the constituents. I mean, Maine’s population is 1.2 million and 15 tickets are supposed to handle them?”
Probably not. So staff members trade.
Usually they swap ticket for ticket. But in dire emergencies, they offer more exotic bait: Photos with famous Senators. Car washes. Compact discs. Beer. “Bone marrow,” joked one staff member.
One staff member, whom Nunley would not identify, pays back her ticket debts with baked goodies. “She made me brownies,” Nunley said. “They were good, too.”
Heather Taylor, scheduler in Rep. Ted Strickland’s (D-Ohio) office, is prepared to offer almost anything in times of need. “I wanted more tickets for the 4th of July week,” she said. “But I would have to give up my first-born for that.”
Instead, she has swapped printing toner for tickets. She also has made staff members from other offices take Strickland’s constituents on Capitol tours in exchange for her tickets.
Despite all the wheeling and dealing, staff members sometimes can be choosy about their trading partners.
“It all depends on who’s been nice to me,” Taylor said. Partisanship is not a major factor. “But if it comes down to giving tickets to a Democrat or a Republican, of course I’m going to trade with the Democrat’s office first.”
Angelina Burney, tour coordinator for Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), offers her extra tickets to the other two Alaska congressional offices first. “Our primary goal,” she said, “is getting tickets for Alaskans.”
Even though Alaskans have a 4,000-mile trek to the White House, Murkowski’s senate office often has about a dozen requests a week and three times that around the July 4th holiday. And like the other offices, that leads to creative deals.
“You do a lot of chuckin’ and jivin’,” Burney said with a grin.
At the White House, Melinda Bates, director of the White House visitor’s office, said the tickets are scarce because tour groups must be kept to about 70 visitors at a time. “We’re delighted when the offices trade because that means the tickets are being used,” Bates said. “It would be a shame if an office decided just to let extra tickets sit in the office.”
Back in Robb’s office, Deguzman’s desperate e-mail for June 15th and June 24th tickets paid off: Three tickets. And the bargaining, this time, was simple. “I only had to trade,” she said, “ticket for ticket.”