Budget Cuts Keep Freshman Senators in the 'Swing Suites'

Amy Harder

The across-the-board cuts to the federal government’s budget are exacerbating an already convoluted process for new senators moving from cramped temporary digs to their permanent offices. 

“We’re told that the sequester is slowing it down,” said Kay Rand, the chief of staff to Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, when National Journal Daily recently visited the newly elected member’s temporary office space, an old, small hearing room in the Russell building.

The Senate Rules Committee, which oversees process, told Rand the move would be delayed by about a month because of sequestration, the $85 billion in automatic cuts to the federal government that went into effect March 1. A recent meeting of Democratic chiefs of staff included discussion of the sequestration’s impact on moving, according to a Democratic Senate source who would only talk on condition of anonymity.

Because of the delay, Rand said she expects to be operating out of the hearing room until June, a month longer than normal.

“It’s like a call center,” Rand said. “We’re replacing all of our large desks with smaller desks so that we can fit more people.” 

But they don’t have enough room for the number of staffers they would like to hire, and they don’t have adequate space for constituents eager to meet with their new senator. The situation is prompting King to find a better way to execute the process to move what are increasingly larger classes of new senators into the Capitol complex.

“We’re working on ways to expedite the process so that there isn’t such a long lag time between when we come here and get into our offices,” King told National Journal Daily late last week. King, who sits on the Rules Committee, added: “The freshman class have agreed among ourselves to shorten our decision time, which will compress the schedule, and I’m also working with the chief of staff of the committee on whatever other ideas we can come up with.”

Because they’re last in Senate seniority, most of the dozen new members elected in the 2012 cycle are last to choose their permanent offices and must wait until April to view what permanent office suite they want. According to Senate rules, they have at most a day to choose, at which point workers employed by the Architect of the Capitol begin the moving process.

“Offices were warned of a potential delay in the moving process because of sequestration’s effect on the Architect of the Capitol’s office,” said Brian Fallon, a spokesman for Rules Committee Chairman Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “The timetable for each senator to choose an office should not be affected by sequestration.”

Other freshman senators are also grappling with less-than-ideal temporary quarters. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, considered one of the most high-profile freshman senators because of his outspoken support for tea-party positions, is operating out of a cramped space in the Dirksen basement, next door to the similarly small offices of a few other freshman senators, including Democrats Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

“Sen. Cruz hit the ground running, but we’re running with a thin staff,” said Chip Roy, Cruz’s chief of staff, in a recent interview in their office’s only conference room. “We still only have about half a policy staff, because frankly, we don’t have space to hire them.”

Roy, who shares an office with Cruz, said they have about 25 people in their office now.

The office of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., is a small space on the ground floor of the Dirksen building with windows, which is a luxury for temporary offices. “I think they gave us a littler nicer space because we’re number 100—last—in the office lottery,” Tessa Gould, Heitkamp's chief of staff, said with a laugh.

The office lottery Gould referred to is the system that puts in single-file line a dozen senators all being sworn in on the same day, who thus have the same level of Senate seniority. The system considers, among other factors, whether the senator is a former House member and whether the new senator spent time in a previous administration. The last factor is state population. With fewer than 700,000 people, North Dakota is the third least-populated state in the country, which explains in part Heitkamp’s dead-last position in the lottery.

The “swing suites”—as the temporary offices are nicknamed on Capitol Hill—of two high-profile Democratic senators, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, are near each other in a big trailer in the courtyard of Russell. Constituents often have a hard time finding both their offices.

As a reminder that life isn’t fair, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., who was appointed in December to replace Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., is already moved into his permanent office, DeMint’s cushy old suite in Russell. The new digs give Scott’s employees enough space to staff up.