Adam Jentleson (L), chief of staff to U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa. (R), meets with Fetterman at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C. on Monday, 3/6/23 (Photo via Twitter).
U.S. Sen. John Fetterman hasn’t been to his Capitol Hill office since mid-February. But he’s been able to keep abreast of issues affecting his constituents and participate in legislation thanks to a staff that works in lockstep to advance the senator’s priorities.
That work includes some official business, including joining Senate legislation last week, aimed at tightening rail safety measures in the aftermath of the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
“I actually think it’s kind of an interesting moment to look behind the scenes of how the Senate works,” Fetterman’s, D-Pa., chief of staff Adam Jentleson told the Capital-Star in an interview late Monday. “I think of each Senate office as like a small business with the senator as CEO, but instead of producing widgets, we’re producing policy.”
Fetterman, 53, has been hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C. since Feb. 15, when he checked himself in for treatment of clinical depression.
This followed a two-night stay earlier last month at George Washington University Hospital after the senator reported feeling light-headed.
A battery of tests conducted at the time showed that Fetterman had not suffered another stroke, a concern for the senator after a stroke he suffered in May 2022 sidelined him from the campaign trail for several weeks.
Fetterman has continued to have lingering auditory processing issues since the stroke and uses assistive technology to conduct interviews.
Jentleson meets with the senator regularly and tweeted out photos of a meeting with Fetterman from Walter Reed on Monday, showing Fetterman sporting his signature Carhartt hoodie.
“Productive morning with Senator Fetterman at Walter Reed discussing the rail safety legislation, Farm Bill, and other Senate business. John is well on his way to recovery and wanted me to say how grateful he is for all the well wishes. He’s laser-focused on PA & will be back soon,” Jentleson wrote.
Productive morning with Senator Fetterman at Walter Reed discussing the rail safety legislation, Farm Bill and other Senate business. John is well on his way to recovery and wanted me to say how grateful he is for all the well wishes. He’s laser focused on PA & will be back soon. pic.twitter.com/143uAhoQRx
— Adam Jentleson (@AJentleson) March 6, 2023
Jentleson told the Capital-Star that even if Fetterman were physically present in his Capitol Hill or Pennsylvania offices, the staff would likely be doing the same amount of work negotiating and producing policy issues; he estimated somewhere between a third and half of all Senate staff are policy experts.
“Their jobs are to have in-house expertise on any issue that could come before a senator,” Jentleson explained. “The first contacts are almost always made at the staff level.”
In the case of the rail legislation, staff from Ohio U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown’s office reached out to U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Fetterman’s offices. The staff of Ohio Republican U.S. Sen. JD Vance reached out to the other Republicans involved, U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Josh Hawley of Missouri.
“So it wasn’t a lot different than it would have been if John weren’t in the hospital,” Jentleson said.
The only thing that requires a senator’s physical presence on Capitol Hill is voting, Jentleson noted, adding that right now there isn’t much of significance for senators to vote on.
“He certainly will miss votes,” he said. “You certainly wouldn’t script this in any way, but of all the times in the calendar that John could have been absent, this is a pretty good time. There’s just not a lot going on.”
As the D.C. staff coordinates directly with the senator, Fetterman’s Pennsylvania staff, which handles calls from constituents, has been busy opening offices across the commonwealth.
Fetterman’s state director Joe Pierce has staffed the senator’s offices in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Erie, with a Pittsburgh office to open April 4, and Wilkes-Barre, Lehigh Valley and State College offices opening soon as well.
“And that’s just in the first two months since he took office,” Pierce told the Capital-Star.
That staff includes people aligned with Fetterman and his policy positions, Pierce added, an important requirement for those who represent him.
“In-state, he’s super defined by how he treats the people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Pierce said of the senator. “And so constituent services are of the utmost importance. We want to make sure his reputation continues to be defined by how well he does by the folks of the Commonwealth.”
Pierce said the in-state staff relies on processes and people to keep things running smoothly.
“We work really hard to make sure that the processes coordinate with the senator’s positions,” he said. Pierce added that he’s in regular communication with Jentleson, which isn’t always the case between a legislator’s D.C. staff and his in-state team.
“There have been offices in which the in-state staff have not had the same coordination with the DC staff, and haven’t been as efficient as they possibly could be,” Pierce told the Capital-Star. “From the moment he hired me and even in the interview process, Adam made it clear that he didn’t want that to be the case. And I felt the same.”
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