Movin' on up: Sen Tester builds staff, moves into permanent offices

Billings Gazette

by Noelle Straub

Editor's note: American voters elect 100 senators and 435 members of the House. The lawmakers give speeches and cast votes, and we know many of their faces. But behind each member of Congress is a large staff that does the research, writing, scheduling, phoning and filing, in Washington and at home.

How does the work get done? The Gazette Washington Bureau asked Sen. Tester, who late last year left his Big Sandy farm to start a U.S. Senate office from scratch. Tester finally moved into his Senate quarters Thursday, two and half months after he was sworn in as the Senate's lowest-ranking member.

Reporter Noelle Straub also looked at staffing for the other two members of the Montana delegation. Here is her report.

WASHINGTON – A visitor with an appointment to meet Sen. Jon Tester in his Capitol Hill office last week showed up several minutes late and apologetic after wandering the halls trying to find Tester's cramped, temporary basement quarters.

Tester has been working short-staffed because he literally did not have enough desks for all the employees he will have. He and his staff have had to hold meetings amid the clank of silverware in a public cafeteria down the hall.

Those problems have at last been resolved as the freshman Democrat finally got permanent office space last week.

"It's going to be a lot better and it's just going to be more fun," Tester said. "Plus we can fully staff."

On Thursday he and several aides rejoiced that they now had windows, open to the spring air, and could see green outside after emerging from the oppressive basement. Inspecting the premises on the second floor of the stately Russell Senate Office Building, Tester was surprised to learn the suite has two bathrooms, and compared their medicine cabinets.

A fresh coat of eggshell paint brightened the walls, which formerly had been forest green, burgundy and other dark colors. Desks and computers were all in place, but the bookshelves gaped empty and no pictures hung on the walls. Tester and his staff discussed his need for more lamps and whether to re-cover the furniture.

The couches and chairs were all inherited from former Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.

Earlier in the month, Tester had stopped in the Senate Sheet Metal Shop and had done a little welding. He didn't know at the time that one of the ducts he worked on would end up in his new office.

The job of getting his offices up and running while jumping into legislative work has been as demanding of Tester as it was for Burns before him. When he came to Washington 18 years ago, Burns, too, was in a "little bitty" temporary office until March. Burns said starting the job was like "drinking out of a fire hose."

While waiting for his permanent offices, Tester had to sort through the 1,000 resumes he received, decide what to spend his office budget on and get seven offices around Montana up and running.

"It's like starting a small business, it absolutely is, from scratch, from nothing," he said.

He was surprised by the number of applicants and that he wasn't able to staff up right away, he said.

From the time he was declared winner of the Senate race in early November until he was sworn in Jan. 4, Tester was allowed by Senate rules to have only two people on salary. Tester and the other nine new senators each had tiny offices off a shared hallway in the basement of a Senate office building. Tester worked out of one room and a shared conference area.

Tester's two staffers were Stephanie Schriock and Bill Lombardi, who worked on his campaign and became his chief of staff and state director, respectively. The pair had two half-days of training in Senate rules on office budget, ethics and the federal hiring process.

An outside group, the Congressional Management Foundation, gave new senators and their staffs manuals on how to set up Washington and state offices, lay out a staff structure and create a budget.

Meanwhile, job applications flowed in and the senator and his small staff spent the period interviewing for staffers to start on swearing-in day.

With an annual budget of $2.7 million, Tester could hire any number of staffers and set their salaries as he chose. Wanting to focus on case work, Tester first decided how many staffers to hire for his state offices. He then turned to legislative aides to monitor the work of the six committees on which he sits.

Tester will have 18 staffers in the state and about 21 in his Washington office.

In his Washington office, Tester will have a nine-person legislative staff, two in his communications shop, three personal staff – including his scheduler and chief of staff – and six or seven administrative staff. More than half are native Montanans.

Tester hired two legislative staffers but gave them a start date of April 1 because he did not have desks for them. He is still in the process of hiring about five more aides.

The Senate allowed Tester a total of 5,000 square feet of office space in Montana, which could be used for one very large office or numerous offices around the state. Tester decided to take over the office space that had been used by Burns. His staff worked with Senate officials to rewrite the leases.

Burns didn't officially have to vacate his offices until Jan. 4, when Tester's staff could take over. The new senator's Helena and Billings offices opened fairly early in January. But the process of getting seven offices up and running took longer than planned, so some of the state offices were not functioning until the end of February.

Back in Washington, departing senators vacated their offices at the end of December. That kicked off a chain of office moves in which each of the 100 senators in order of seniority had eight hours to decide whether to move to a new space.

As each senator who wanted to move did so, the next in line could move into the vacated space. And so it took until mid-March for Tester, who is dead last in Senate seniority, to get into his office.

Meanwhile, the 10 incoming senators were given more temporary space – some of them in trailers in the courtyard of one of the Senate office buildings. Tester got to keep his one room and add several more.

At the end of February, Tester found out where his permanent office would be. Staff then sat down with Senate employees and a set of blueprints to pick out furniture and discuss colors, decide who would sit where and how the computers and telephones would be placed.

Did he help choose paint colors?

"I did, absolutely," the senator joked. "I wanted purple and gold, and I was overruled."