The staffers

The folks behind the folks in Washington


The day that Jim Risch was sworn in as Idaho's newest U.S. senator, he took his grandkids to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The gray, modern-architecture building sits just four blocks from the Russell Senate Office Building courtyard and its portable office buildings where Risch and his stripped-down team now work, the senator's office doubling as a conference and meeting room.

But at least Risch, in the Senate's equivalent of a lean-to, still has his original chief of staff, John Sandy, who headed Risch's staff during the senator's term as Idaho governor. House member Walt Minnick wasn't so lucky.

A little more than a month after Minnick was sworn in, Chief of Staff Isaac Squyres left the position to return to his job at lobby firm Gallatin Public Affairs.

Squyres' departure and Risch's portable office are just two examples of the sometimes rocky road to getting a new office up and running once the election is won. Risch and Minnick are new to both D.C., the city, and D.C., the political beast. To staff an office amid one of the nation's largest and gravest political crises—checked the Dow today?—might feel a little like being a firefighter the first day on the job.

"It was not a typical year," said Kate Haas, who is serving as Minnick's chief of staff in the wake of Squyres' departure. "Oftentimes new members have a settling-in time in January." Haas has spent the last four years working for Democrat Evan Bayh, Indiana's junior senator, most recently as Bayh's director of operations.

With the economy imploding or cratering or whatever scary verb you use, new House and Senate members barely had enough time to change out of their fancy inaugural get-ups before the fierce battle over President Barack Obama's stimulus package began. (Both Risch, a Republican, and Minnick, a Blue Dog Democrat, voted against it.)

And while all this is going on, somebody needs to staff some offices.

"We're a rookie office, so we're not without our hiccups," said John Foster, Minnick's communications director. He said Minnick used two other Congressional offices, those of Mike Simpson of Idaho and Jim Matheson of Utah, as models.

Minnick kept the bulk of his staff back in Idaho, a move that Haas said falls in line with Minnick's commitment to his constituents.

"It makes perfect sense that the staffing structure reflects that," she said.

When asked if she saw Squyres' departure coming, Haas gives the D.C.-est of non-answers: "I'm pleased that Walt asked me to do it."

With Haas now in place, Minnick has fully staffed all his offices. Risch, on the other hand, hasn't.

In the Senate, everything is based on seniority. Risch expects to move into his permanent office in about a month.

And from his temporary courtyard quarters, Risch is hunkering down on what he called the "one and only" issue in D.C.—the economy. So much for easing into the job.

Risch Legislative Director Ryan White, who is a former staffer of Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, will certainly help to smooth the transition. But Risch's D.C. office remains understaffed for a simple if not-so-dignified reason.

"We don't have the room," said Risch. "If I hire many more, people are going to be standing around instead of having a place to work."