On one of my travels, I was told a story of a conversation between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson about the founding of the country. Jefferson was off as the Ambassador to France when the Constitution was written. Upon his return, he asked Washington why on earth the Senate had been created. As the two men drank a cup of tea together, Washington asked Jefferson, “Why did you pour some of your tea into the saucer?” Jefferson replied, “To allow it to cool.” Washington explained, “That’s why we created the Senate.”
That hot vs. cool difference of the House vs. the Senate, is evident in how the two chambers address policy. The idea is that the Senate should take time to contemplate the big picture and not be as reactionary as the House. This dramatic contrast in pace is also quite pronounced in the differences between how new members are accommodated in each group.
My understanding of the House is that the process of selecting offices proceeds with the maximum chaos. First, on a designated day, the senior members get their choice of selecting a new office from among those that will be vacated due to retirements or election defeats. Each member gets about half an hour for his or her turn to consider issues such as office size, view, distance from the Capitol, etc., so I believe it involves a fair amount of sprinting to the possible locations to evaluate the options. When the incoming new members arrived for orientation just after the election, there was a lottery in which each member drew a number designating his or her spot in the sequence of office selection. There is some lore that suggests that members who are willing to do something extraordinary such as singing a song or doing a handstand often meet with unusual success in the lottery, but that may be just one of the legends of Congress. When the previous Congress finishes, the new House members are all moved into their new offices with great dispatch so they get settled very quickly. With 84 new members, they really can’t afford to lollygag around.
The Senate approaches the entire office selection with far more deliberation, with translates into a considerably longer process. The selection order is determined entirely through seniority. Since there were twelve new Senators in the incoming class, (fifteen if you count the replacements for Sen Inouye, Sen. DeMint, and now Sen. Kerry) obviously the swearing-in date is not sufficient to prioritize each person in the group.
There are eight tie-breakers that are used to establish seniority among Senators who are sworn in on the same day:
- Former U.S. senator
- Former U.S. representative
- Former President
- Former Vice President
- Former Cabinet member
- Former state governor
- Population of state based on the most recent census when the senator took office
- Alphabetical by last name (in case two senators came from the same state on the same day and have identical credentials)
In the current freshman group, Tammy Baldwin is the most senior since she is a former House member with 14 years of experience. She is followed by Jeff Flake, a former House member with 12 years of experience. Senators Donnelly, Murphy, and Hirono each have six years of experience in the House, so their seniority is determined by the population of their states; Indiana is 16th in population according to the 2010 census followed by Connecticut as 29th and Hawaii as 40th. After the former U.S. Representatives, the group boasts two former governors, Angus King who served Maine for eight years and Tim Kaine who served Virginia for four years. The other members are sorted by their populations. (There’s a great Wikipedia table that sorts out all of this information in tabular form.)
So, back to the offices. As in the House, considerations such as space, location, and configuration are important. In the House, each Representative receives an equal budget for salaries, and there is a cap on the number of staff members that can be hired between the DC and District staff. In the Senate, the budget for each member is proportional to the size of the state, so staff sizes can vary considerably. For example, I have been told that the California staffs are so large that there are only two office suites large enough to fit them. The suites are referred to as the California senior suite and the California junior suite.
Configuration is also a consideration. In the Russell building where I work, some of the offices have a string of rooms all along one side of the hall, some go around a corner, and some have rooms on both sides of the hall. In the Hart building, each office has an internal stairway and has space on two different floors. Location can also be important since it is more convenient to be close to Capitol or close to a particular Committee room.
Senator Bennet’s staff moved into our current location in Russell about a year ago. The Senator apparently fell in love with the history of the building as the oldest of the three office buildings. I have certainly learned to appreciate all the architectural details such as the marble staircases and the marble fireplace in every office. I also don’t regret that it is the shortest walk to the Capitol building!
A Senate office will always have a front office where visitors are met. This location is marked by an American flag, the State flag, and often a POW-MIA flag, along with a pair of bronze plaques, one which identifies the name of the Senator and the state, and one which displays the state seal. There is at least one conference room, the Senator’s office, and office space for the rest of the staff.
Other than the California suites, office selection all comes down to seniority. As more senior people retire or leave, the next people on the seniority list are consulted about whether or not they are interested in moving. When a suite is vacated, it is emptied out, painted and freshened up, and then the furniture, equipment, and accoutrements of the new occupant are moved in. That process takes far more time than I would have expected, but I suppose it is typical of the Senate’s slow and deliberate pace of moving forward. Obviously the empty suites are dealt with first, and once they are filled, the recently vacated offices follow. I chatted with Senator Blumenthal’s front office staff just before Inauguration, and they don’t expect to move until April! Senator Blumenthal was formerly 97th in order of seniority, but he has obviously moved up quite a bit since November.
As a result of this slow pace, the new Senators are all currently occupying what is known as swing space, or temporary offices that are located in basements, attics, or auxiliary structures. Senator Joe Donnelly of Indiana occupies a space in the basement of Russell, but at least he gets flags. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is in an odd space in the addition built in the Russell courtyard, and Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy seems to be in internal space in the Dirksen office building that may or may not have windows!
Eventually everyone will be settled into their new space, but until then, I’ll share pictures of what a proper Senate office should look like.