There may be no better example of how bloated the government is than the number of offices each senator has. First, there’s a senator’s official Washington office in one of three massive buildings on Capitol Hill, especially busy during the 153 days the Senate is scheduled to be in session this year. Add to that a myriad of committee offices. And many senators have hideaways tucked in the Capitol’s corners, where they can hold private meetings with colleagues and constituents or sneak a nap, lunch, or respite. And then there are the 460 state satellite offices.
Back-of-the-envelope math puts the total number of Senate offices at close to 700 for its 100 members. And those 460 state offices are expensive to rent and maintain: $40 million, or nearly one-fifth of the $219 million budgeted to run all Senate offices. That’s why Sen. Ben Nelson, the Nebraska Democrat who chairs the legislative branch panel of the Appropriations Committee is thinking about closing some of those state workrooms as he attempts to impose a 5 percent spending cut to prove the Senate means business in slashing the deficit. “It’s something that needs to be looked at,” Nelson tells Whispers. “There are some economies to be achieved.”
His Republican colleague, Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota, agrees. Pruning senator’s budgets “may mean that you don’t have as many offices in your state.”
Terrance Gainer, the Senate sergeant-at-arms, says closing down state offices would also lead to savings in IT expenses and other office goods. “I’d ask them to take a look at that,” says Gainer.“We all ought to feel the pain so as we go to kind of zero-based budgeting or zero-based running a state, how many offices do we need?”
Well, many apparently, according to their websites. While the allotment of offices is supposed to be based on state population, it’s not a perfect science Florida Republican Marco Rubio, has five for a state of 18.5 million; Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California (pop. 36.9 million) has four state offices; Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York (pop. 19.5 million) has nine.
Nelson lists five state offices on his website, but three are operated for virtually nothing out of the homes of the staffers. His two official offices are in Lincoln and Omaha. Says an aide: “By not maintaining satellite offices across the state, the 15th largest in the U.S., he’s saving a considerable amount already.”
Gainer, a long-time police executive, says it’s time for an adult approach to the Senate budget. “If they are given an allowance,” he says of senators and their state office budgets, “they’ll spend an allowance. So if we reduce the allowance, it will force the tough love.” Still, Nelson’s not looking forward to delivering the news. “It will be awkward for us to suggest changes to [senators from] larger states.”
Illustration by Ed Wexler for USN&WR.
Corrected on 5/31/2011: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the extent of Nelson’s state operations.