Doing the Senate Shuffle, Faster Than in Years Past

Posted February 7, 2005 at 6:49pm

Much like the sizzling real estate market in the Washington metropolitan area, Senate space is going fast. So fast, in fact, that all of the offices have been filled a month ahead of schedule according to Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

“We’ve worked very hard to streamline and aggressively move the process,” Lott said when asked about accommodating office changes. “We hope to have [every Senator] in their office by the end of February. … [T]hat would be a month ahead of what has been done in the past, and I think Senators deserve that.”

The process of assigning suites comes down to one thing: seniority. The Rules Committee goes down its seniority list, presenting the available suites to each Senator. An eight-hour countdown begins in which the next Senator on the list can choose his or her new home; once time runs out or a selection has been made, the committee moves on to the next most senior Senator.

In the past, Senators had 24 hours to make a decision. The shorter window, prompted in part by the large class of freshmen entering the Senate this year, was the catalyst for completing the process more quickly. Office moves are then orchestrated by the Architect of the Capitol.

When it comes to choosing office space in the Senate, there is one overriding concern: How big is it?

When asked earlier this year why Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) was moving into Sen. Tom Daschle’s (D-S.D.) old personal office following the former Minority Leader’s defeat, Frist spokesman Nick Smith insisted it was nothing personal between the two leaders. He simply explained the new digs have “over 1,000 more square feet of office space.”

“It was purely a square footage issue,” Chris Lisi, communications director for Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.), answered when asked why the Senator moved from his office to the one formerly occupied by now-retired Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.).

“We looked at a handful of spaces, and this one was the biggest available,” Lisi said, also noting that “if the space had been good enough for Sen. Hollings for all those years, it is probably good enough for us.”

Hollings, of course, retired after November’s election after 40 years in the Senate. His office was likely to be one of the most sought-after pieces of real estate according to Lott, whose committee will now go to work on doling out the coveted Capitol offices, more colloquially referred to as “hideaways.”

Moves cannot be completed quickly enough for most staffs. Lott spokeswoman Susan Irby said it is difficult to get any work done before moving into permanent workspace. Senators “are always sort of in transition until they are in their permanent offices. It’s hard to concentrate until you have your own office.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Alaska) staff would certainly agree with that sentiment.

Murkowski’s path to Hart 709, her new office, has been a long and convoluted one. Originally appointed to the Senate by her father to fill the seat he vacated after being elected governor, Murkowski inherited his office space, as Senate rules dictate.

When she was elected for the first time in November, she had to give up the digs her dad’s seniority had won him. The office that had been occupied by two generations of Murkowskis went to Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) shortly after the election, but before SH-709 became available.

In the interim, Murkowski’s staff was forced to relocate to the temporary offices — trailers, really — in the Russell Courtyard. “They were more like temporary classroom space” than offices, said Murkowski’s press secretary, Elliott Bundy.

The return to civilization could not have come soon enough for the Senator from Alaska. When asked about the benefits of changing offices, Bundy said “for the size of our staff it’s good. … Having an office that allows our staff to get out of their desks without bumping” into each other is a huge bonus.

The temporary offices were first built in the spring of 1999, according to Eva Malecki, communications officer for the Architect of the Capitol.

“We were upgrading the offices,” Malecki said, “everything from telecommunications to the heating to ventilation.” Instead of trying to work around the Senators and their staffs, they were temporarily relocated to the Russell Courtyard while work was taking place.

“What we’ve discovered is that the trailers gave new Members more space than the traditional basement offices in the Dirksen office building they would get stuck in in the past,” Malecki said. As a result, Senators are now split between basement offices and trailers while awaiting permanent offices.

The moves themselves are not troublesome. Lisi said that she was “very involved in the office moving” and that there were “zero hassles; it was a seamless transition. The people coordinating the move were incredibly good.”

Bundy echoed the sentiment, saying that “by Thursday night you have everything packed up, and by Friday afternoon you’re ready to plug your computer in and get back to work.”