Taking Care of Business

Posted January 28, 2009 at 1:14pm

It has been less than a month since the 111th Congress was sworn in, and Jon Selib, chief of staff to Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), is already hard at work on an economic recovery package.

“Is it hard? Are we all working hard?” Selib asks. “Yes, but this is why I wanted to work on Capitol Hill. This is what I think anyone who wants to work in policy wants to be in the middle of. Maybe it’s demented for people to say, but this is it.”

These days Selib and his staff have some of the more stressful jobs on the Hill. As the unemployment rate creeps higher and higher and more companies file for bankruptcy, the pressure to come up with a solution is bearing down on Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee — and his staff.

That pressure suits Selib, who decided back in law school that he didn’t want to take a job that would be the same every day. Instead, he wanted a career that would keep him on his toes, and for this he turned to Capitol Hill. Selib began his Hill career eight years ago when he started working as a law clerk on the Senate Finance Committee. From there he moved to tax counsel for the committee, followed by legislative director in Baucus’ personal office before being promoted to chief of staff in June 2008.

The 33-year-old says one big perk of his job is getting to work with the Senator who has acted as a mentor for nearly a decade. “He’s been in the Senate for a long time, and he knows a lot about this place,” Selib says of his boss. “I think a lot of people that work for Sen. Baucus will tell you they learn something from him all the time. Whatever you’re dealing with, he’s probably dealt with five times or more.”

While there is an advantage to working for a long-serving Senator, it does increase the workload. Selib has a hard time describing his day-to-day responsibilities in the office because they fluctuate often. As chief of staff, he has a hand in everything: hiring new staff, dealing with legislative affairs, keeping up with the needs of 900,000 Montana residents.

“Whether I’ve worked on the committee or my legislative director job, I think one of the best things in working on Capitol Hill is you never really end up doing the same thing every day,” he says.

In addition to the variety, Selib says he wanted a job where he could help people and feel as though he accomplished something at the end of the day.

“Every once in a while you’re reminded of what a tremendous impact and what a tremendous power you have to help influence and change peoples lives,” he says with a smile. For example, in 2004, when Selib was with the Senate Finance Committee, one section in the budget would have struck a low-income tax provision that he and Baucus felt was important. Because the Baucus team was in the minority at the time, the only way that they could get the provision removed was by changing the minds of a few Republicans. Eventually, after working around the clock, they were able to win by one vote.

“We were in the trenches, and we won,” Selib says. “I remember I was so dead tired at the end of that, but you know, we got calls from Montanans … saying, ‘Thank you so much Sen. Baucus. You have no idea how disastrous this would have been for us.’”

Selib says many of his law school buddies don’t get that same satisfaction. “I have lots of friends who I went to law school with who are toiling away in litigation over office furniture or doing structure finance, who don’t get to feel that every day.”

One of Selib’s main responsibilities is to hire and manage much of the staff. He says he tries to show his employees a lot of respect and expects a lot from their day-to-day performance in the office.

“I think that those two things go hand in hand,” he says. “If you’re micromanaging, if you’re talking down to your staff, you’re not showing them the level of respect that they deserve, but you’re also not setting a high bar for them to reach.”

Selib also tries to keep everyone’s mind on Montana. He makes a major effort to make sure staff from his office, as well as the committee office, travel back to the state from time to time and reconnect with constituents.

“Like many things, the tone is set at the top. [Baucus] says it over and over again, ‘I have 900,000 of the best bosses in the world,’” Selib says. “And I know that every member of his staff has heard that many, many times, but it certainly sets a tone that whatever we do, we need to be thinking about Montana.”

With the recent economic crisis, Selib has spent much of his time strategizing with Baucus and the rest of the staff. In the past month alone, Baucus met with several experts in the financial industry and recently issued a mark — or preliminary legislation — that outlines the budget effects of the proposed American Recovery and Reinvestment Tax Act.

In addition to trying to help the people of Montana, the staff is also focused on bettering the country as a whole, Selib says, and that will require more than a quick fix.

“We’re also looking long term at what are the things that not only will stabilize the economy, but that will grow the economy down the road,” he says, adding that his focus is on things like health care reform and energy independence.

While the pressure can sometimes be daunting, Selib revels in it. “I love it,” he says. “It’s great; it’s a terrific job.”