Help Wanted: Senate Secretary

How many jobs do the Democrats get to assign?

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for The Explainer’s free daily podcast on iTunes.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., appointed a new sergeant-at-arms and a new secretary of the Senate on Tuesday. Now that the Democrats have retaken both chambers of Congress, how many Capitol Hill employees will get sacked?

Quite a few. The majority party gets the bulk of the money to hire office staff. The Democrats will have control of two-thirds of the funds in the House and three-fifths of the funds in the Senate. According to the National Journal, that means we might see a turnover of about 600 staff positions when the Dems take over.

Things work a bit differently for Congress’ nonpartisan officers and their hundreds of employees. These include the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms, who oversee security and handle other administrative duties around the Capitol. (The House sergeant-at-arms also gets control of the chamber’s official mace, while the Senate sergeant-at-arms hangs on to the official gavels.) In the House, the other top officers are the chief administrative officer, the clerk, and the parliamentarian, while the Senate has a secretary to run everything from payroll to the gift shop. Each chamber also has its own chaplain.

These top officer positions are technically subject to a full vote, but in practice the majority leaders get to make the decisions. In the Senate, the sergeant-at-arms and secretary may get fired every time there’s a change in majority leader, even if overall control remains with one party. When Bill Frist took over from Trent Lott a few years ago, he installed his chief of staff as the new secretary. The selection process was more contentious in the 19th century, before the two-party system became firmly established. In 1814, the Senate voted on nine different candidates for secretary before making a decision.

Firings in the House could be far more extensive. When the Republicans swept into power in 1994 after decades in the minority, they cleaned out the House officers and a significant portion of their staffs. Middle managers complained that they hadn’t been patronage appointments and deserved to keep their jobs. The new House leadership also eliminated certain patronage-heavy offices, like that of the official doorkeeper, who had supervised a staff of hundreds. The Democrats aren’t likely to make so many changes, but the hirings and firings could extend further down the chain of command.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Betty Koed and Don Ritchie of the U.S. Senate Historical Office.