The Senate is in the midst of a terrible crisis, and I'm here to help. First of all, there's the minifridge. Is this caramel? Moose blood? I have no idea. But when I miraculously scrub it clean, all Senator Jon Tester notices is the Heineken minikeg in the garbage. In Montana, he explains, you don't throw away beer, even on office-moving day. In New Jersey, I tell him, you get pizza and beer when you help someone move. In Montana, I learn, people don't take obvious hints.
No governing body does insane rituals like the Senate--with its handleless gavel, seersucker-suit day every June and Republican candy desk. It's like Pee-wee's Playhouse with more sex scandals. But nothing is crazier than the fact that every two years, the Senate must break from trillion-dollar bailouts and Iraq-war allocations so that everyone who wants to can switch offices. Each office is allotted by seniority, which is calculated according to a formula that involves number of years in the Senate, previous federal jobs, the size of your state and eight other factors. Obviously, Robert Byrd has the best office, since he's served the longest. Still, when it's time to move, Byrd gets a day to check out any new office he might want. Then, over the next three months, draft rights trickle down to the 99 other Senators. "I don't think it's like high school," says Tester. "I think it's more like elementary school." (Cast your votes for the TIME 100.)
Tester, a sweet, back-slappy guy with an $11 flattop, was 100th in seniority when he was elected two years ago. He landed the worst office in the U.S. Senate, which isn't bad--it being an office in the U.S. Senate. There are high ceilings, marble everywhere and a view of a courtyard. But half of his space is on the second floor of the Russell Senate Office Building, and the other half is divided between two unconnected offices on the third floor, so his 19-member staff is always running up and down. Also, there's no hot tub. None of the Senators have hot tubs, but I still think that's wrong.
After the 2008 turnover, Tester was only 84th in seniority, so he and his staff spent two months following hallway gossip about which offices would be getting scooped up. Back in January, the dream was that they'd get Joe Biden's office, but Judd Gregg took that, and Bob Casey took Gregg's. When Tester's draft day finally came, he looked at the dozen or so offices remaining, eventually deciding, after three trips, on Mary Landrieu's.
The Senate outsources the serious moving to a company. Still, there are some fragile pieces of art--all of them involve horses or places that horses graze or things horses like--that we can carry. I grab a foam-core-mounted map of Montana, and on the way to the new digs, Tester takes me down to the basement, where he worked in windowless offices for his first three months, holding staff meetings in the cafeteria, waiting for the office-shifting process to progress through the Senate. Mark Udall is now in Tester's old space, waiting. "It's just survival," says Udall's communications director, Tara Trujillo. "We've seen mice. The cockroaches do not survive here." Tester laughs the deep laugh of a guy who no longer has to work near dead cockroaches.
We take the Senators-only elevator, which, sadly, doesn't have any cool Senator stuff in it, and when we reach the seventh floor of the Hart Office Building and walk into Tester's new office, it is hard not to feel like a family that's gotten picked for the bizarro version of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, in which people come to your house and, in just 48 hours, make it look like crap. Whereas once Tester had high ceilings and period details, now he has cubicles and modular furniture. It's just not Senator-worthy. Tester notices my disappointment and says grimly, "This is more functional. If I were choosing on aesthetics, I'd own a different tractor." And, perhaps, a different haircut.
To brighten up the place, I offer a housewarming present: a framed picture of me. Tester admires it a little too long and says he'll put it right above his desk--in a way that, if I did not know better, would make me think irony had reached Big Sandy, Mont. I cheerily point out that he's across the hall from Daniel Inouye, who is from Hawaii. "I get to say 'Aloha' every morning. Maybe he'll invite me to Hawaii," Tester says.
Tester takes off for a confirmation vote, and I head back to the old office to wait for the phone guys to come and transfer the numbers. As I look up at his old giant ceilings, I realize Tester made the right call. Being a Senator is a huge job with a big staff, and to get things done, you need cubicles and meeting rooms, not marble and courtyard views. Besides, the Inouye staffers wear Hawaiian shirts to work a lot. That's never going to stop being funny.