College teacher observes Washington’s hardest job

WASHINGTON — For the past four months, Rutgers political science professor Ross K. Baker has been the proverbial fly on the wall in the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Beginning Jan. 22, the first day of this year’s congressional session, Baker essentially became a part of Reid’s staff, even though his work consisted of observing instead of serving.

“It’s funny. I came there with a somewhat simple image of the Senate. I went there with great clarity,” Baker said.

“I came back a very confused professor. It’s just so much more complicated. The procedures are more complicated. The relationships are more complicated. The political dynamics are more complicated. In a way, I was almost intimidated by the complexity.”

This was not Baker’s first experience as a detached academic observer in a congressional office.

Beginning in 1975, he divided a year between the offices of Sens. Walter Mondale, D-Minn.; Birch Bayh, D-Ind.; and Frank Church, D-Idaho.

Later, he went to the House to monitor Rep. Gillis Long, a Louisiana Democrat who was a cousin of legendary Sen. Huey Long, D-La.

In 2000, Baker went to the office of Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. Four years later, he observed Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

“This one (observing Reid) was the toughest because conditions had changed,” Baker said.

For example, previous lawmakers he observed were able to compensate Baker for some of the 20 percent in salary he lost when he was away from Rutgers.

But new ethics rules forbid such compensation, and Baker said his resources were “drastically reduced.”

Nevertheless, Baker said, Reid gave him “extraordinary access that would make me the envy of any congressional scholar.”

The biggest surprise for Baker was the magnitude of the Senate majority leader’s operation.

“It is much larger than I thought,” he said.

Like any senator, Reid has a state office, which is probably below average in size and number of staff members, Baker said.

But as majority leader, Reid has at least one staffer, and in some cases two or more staffers, to assist him in major policy areas such as energy, defense, foreign policy and health care.

In addition, Reid has aides for all of the Senate’s 21 standing committees and about a dozen other staffers working in the media center known as “the war room.”

A typical week in the majority leader’s office included a staff meeting Monday morning and briefings Tuesday and Thursday to prepare Reid for weekly news conferences.

On Friday, another staff meeting usually is scheduled to discuss Nevada issues such as Yucca Mountain and recent problems at the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada.

Baker also was privy to policy briefings, and he acknowledged it was difficult sometimes not to get caught up in the advocacy of Reid’s staffers.

Before he began his term in Reid’s office, Baker described the Senate leader’s job as the toughest in Washington, even tougher than being president.

After ending his four-month stay on May 9, Baker said his experience made him even more convinced of that.

“I’ve been observing Democratic and Republican floor leaders for years, and it seems to me all of them carry the cares of the world on their shoulders,” Baker said. “Harry Reid presents himself the same way.”

Baker said he was taken aback by the cordial relationship Reid has with Nevada’s other senator, Republican John Ensign, who almost ended Reid’s career in a close race in 1998.

“When I was in Chuck Hagel’s office, the relationship with (Democratic Sen.) Ben Nelson’s office was bad because they had run against each other in Nebraska,” Baker said.

Despite his access, Baker said he was disappointed that he did not have more interaction with Reid.

“I think that, personally, Reid is a very kindly man,” Baker said. “Before I went to his office, I would have said he’s a very tough character, and I did see that side of him. But what surprised me was that there was almost a gentleness to him.”

Baker’s grandfather was a coal miner in Pennsylvania. For years, his family kept a box of Searchlight Diamond Matches that belonged to his grandfather.

Before he left, Baker said he gave the box to Reid, who grew up in Searchlight and whose father was a miner.

“The senator seemed very touched,” Baker said.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau reporter Tony Batt at tbatt @stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.

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