Heard on the Hill

Pete Olson on Respect in Congress: ‘We’ve Lost That’

Texas Republican shares what he learned as a staffer

Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, was Sen. John Cornyn’s first chief of staff. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Pete Olson tries to make sure his staffers get home at a reasonable hour because he remembers long nights on the Senate floor, endless debates and the chaos of 9/11.

Before he ran for Congress in 2008, the Texas Republican worked for Sen. Phil Gramm and his successor John Cornyn, now the majority whip.

Olson flew anti-submarine missions in the Navy before being assigned to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1994 and came to the Hill a year later when he was appointed a Navy liaison officer to the Senate.

Q: What did you do as a staffer?

A: In Sen. Gramm’s office, I started with him in April of 1998. I had just left the Navy at the time. He had a vacancy for a guy to do defense work and foreign affairs, and I had that portfolio. They moved me over to what’s called the special projects shop. That’s big-time constituent services and monitoring all the correspondence going back to the district, the regional offices and D.C. — making sure it’s going out on time.

Senators have a role in appointing justices. Sen. Gramm had a commission of lawyers from across the state … to make recommendations of who that person, if there’s a vacancy, should be. … I went to law school at [the University of] Texas, so I got that portfolio. He made me his deputy chief of staff his last year in office as he was leaving.

[I was Cornyn’s] first chief of staff [after he was elected to the Senate], hired Jan. 3 at noon in 2003. I left his office to run for Congress in the summer of 2007. It happened real quick. This guy named Tom DeLay resigned. My congressman resigned? The leader?

A photo is seen in the office of Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, featuring himself, his daughter and former Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, taken in 2000. (Photo By Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)
A photo is seen in the office of Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, featuring himself, his daughter and former Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, taken in 2000. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

Q: What are some ways the Hill has changed since then?

A: The big difference is the place has gotten a lot more partisan than when I was working there for Phil Gramm. I remember Sen. Gramm and Sen. Robert Byrd, a liberal Democrat from West Virginia, got in a really strong debate on the Senate floor. Going back and fourth for a good 15 minutes … something about what’s on the floor being unconstitutional or constitutional. And it was so powerful that people from the Cloakroom came out to watch it.

But when it was all over — I was staffing Sen. Gramm at the time — he walked up to Sen. Byrd and said, “Robert, that was a lot of fun, man.” [Byrd said,] “Oh, my dear friend Phil!” Now they just storm off and just the heck with you. We’ve lost that.

Q: What was your most exciting day as a staffer?

A: Working for Phil Gramm, this day called Sept. 11 of 2001 was very exciting. I lived over there in Annandale, Virginia. I remember driving across the 14th Street bridge, had just passed the Pentagon not knowing that she’d be hit. My wife called me up and said, “A plane’s hit the World Trade Center.”

It was just pandemonium. The chief of staff just came in and said, “Go home now. Deal with your families.” Getting out of here, the bridges were shut down … took me about four hours. I couldn’t call my wife because the cellphones were all jammed up.

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Q: What changed for staffers as a result?

A: I remember we all scattered, and they could not track down the senators. It was pretty clear if we had to declare war, we have to come into session, so they had to have some communication to relay. We never thought about that. And so they got BlackBerrys for all the senators. The chief of staff said, “Come down and talk to the boss about this BlackBerry thing.” I walked in there, and he had just got to his desk and was kind of looking at it. He opens his drawer up, puts it in there, closed it.

Q: Does your experience as a staffer affect how you treat and work with your staff?

A: Oh, sure, because I’ve been there. I’ve been slating stuff out until 2 or 3 in the morning like they do. I tend to send them home as much as I possibly can. There’s a lot they can do just by watching C-SPAN. The Senate days, you had to stay there — the bill’s going late on the floor, the legislative director was there, the press person was there …  about five or six people to make sure Sen. Gramm had what he wanted. I don’t do that.

[If my staff] wants to stay, great, but just watch on C-SPAN. If an amendment comes up, I got to vote on it. If you’re watching it, tell me how I should vote. It’s a different world because I know what they go through. Being home with their family’s important.

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