Senate shuffle: Freshmen lawmakers face delays getting into office space

Freshman senators waiting to move into their permanent office space are facing a  month’s delay — and sequestration is the likely culprit.

More than 100 days into the 113th Congress, most of the new senators are still in temporary spaces.

ADVERTISEMENT
They were initially expected to be installed into their offices by May. But the Architect of the Capitol’s (AoC) office, which handles the moves, said they will be completed by mid-June.

The $80 billion in mandatory cuts to government spending affected the Capitol staff, which takes care of the maintenance, cleaning and upkeep of the complex. There were cutbacks on overtime, limits on new hiring and contracts that were either reduced or not issued.

When the cuts went into effect, the AoC said it would have to cut down on its “maintenance and operations programs,” according to a letter sent to employees and obtained by The Hill.

Freshman senators, who have the lowest seniority in the 100-member chamber, are the last to get moved into their offices. 

The start of each new Congress brings a shuffling of members, as lawmakers with seniority can opt to take the office space of exiting members and newly elected lawmakers have to wait to pick the remaining suites.

It is different in the House, where departing members had to be out of their offices shortly after the election — by Dec. 1. They were put into basement cubicles while the AoC did repair work and moved lawmakers office by office — up to eight moves a day. 

Senators, who occupy more space and stay for longer terms, have bigger office suites to prepare, which take more time.

And it’s not just freshmen who move. Other senators can opt to move offices, taking a better suite and location from a departing member. In the Russell Senate Office Building, for example, there was a sign on Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) old office giving its new location.

Freshman senators have picked out their suites, and the offices are getting fresh coats of paint, new carpeting and repair work done before the members can move in.

The lawmakers are being housed in basement rooms and trailers as their suites are being prepared.

A recent walk through the second-floor hallway in the Russell building found furniture crowding the halls while the smell of paint drifted throughout the walkways. Inside an office suite, workers were painting walls and varnishing woodwork.

In the nearby Hart Senate Office Building, the seal from the state of Nebraska was hung outside a seventh-floor suite in preparation for Sen. Deb Fischer’s (R-Neb.) arrival while maintenance staff worked inside.

Offices are picked by seniority, starting with the date a lawmaker was elected. For the freshman senators, their ranking was determined by previous experience in the House, in gubernatorial roles or even by a state’s population.

Seniority is a delicate matter and one of great importance. It decides committee assignments, office space and the highest-ranking member — in this case Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) — who serves as president pro tem and is in line for the presidency.

But it also works in mysterious ways.

For instance, Sen. Mo Cowan (D-Mass.) is 100th in seniority, having been sworn-in in February to replace John Kerry, who became secretary of State. 

However, he occupies Kerry’s suite of senior office space, while Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the state’s senior senator, is in a trailer in the Russell building’s courtyard while she waits for her office space to be refurnished. 

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who was appointed to replace the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, occupies Inouye’s senior office space in Hart while Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) has a basement office in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Schatz has more seniority than Hirono, however, because he was sworn-in in December and she took office in January.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) is also in the trailer space in the Russell building. The prefabricated buildings take up most of the courtyard and are accessible from the inside. A red carpet leads from one of the side hallways into a space of low ceilings and dark corridors. 

Freshman senators say the lack of space isn’t impeding their work even with staff crammed into tight areas and conference rooms having to be arranged or borrowed for meetings.

“It’s part of the deal,” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said. “It takes time for them to move everyone around. It certainly moves slower than is convenient, but I don’t think it’s an impediment to people being able to do their job. It really hasn’t been for us.”

He noted that “we had almost our full staff when we opened our office, and I think everyone knew what they were getting into their first four or five months.”

His office said they are moving into their space in the Hart building at the end of the month.

Freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) even joked about it.

“The way the Senate operates is not the most efficient of processes. Although I joke, somewhat tongue in cheek, that it may have a little bit to do with freshman hazing as well,” he said.