SALT LAKE CITY — Sam Rex needs a letter from a U.S. senator. Two senators would be even better.
The St. George retiree has been on a five-year quest to get his late uncle the Congressional Medal of Honor for saving the lives of hundreds of American soldiers during a World War II battle in France. The letter would help make the case to the committees considering his request.
And if Rex does find himself at the White House with President Donald Trump bestowing the prestigious honor upon the late Sgt. Dale Rex, the event will not only be historic for his family, which hails from tiny Randolph, Utah. It will mark a milestone in an early experiment by Utah's two senators.
In what could be a first in Congress, Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney have combined their constituent casework staffs into a single operation that streamlines the process of helping Utahns navigate a Byzantine federal bureaucracy for answers to problems with everything from Social Security checks and veterans benefits to immigration status or expedited passports. Most people caseworkers talk to are at the end of their rope by the time they contact their senator, and resolving the problem can win over a constituent regardless of a senator's or representative's politics.
"Sometimes having a letter (signed by) both senators might have a bigger impact" when seeking a resolution with a government agency, says Allyson Bell, chief of staff for Lee. "Two senators might be better than one in some cases."
The joint team will also help Romney's office more quickly fill a void left by the juggernaut casework operation longtime Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch built over four decades before he retired at the end of last year. During his last two years in office, Hatch's staff reported handling more than 2,000 cases, which was more than double what most of the other casework teams in the Utah delegation handled in the same time period.
When Romney won Hatch's seat, Bell suggested to Romney's team they join forces to handle casework. It was an easy sell for the freshman senator faced with the task of building a new staff.
"It made no sense to us that we have two senators in each state and each of them have their own office of constituent services," Romney said.
When a Utahn calls either Romney's or Lee's office for help with their Social Security benefits, immigration status, foreign adoptions, military medals, passport problems or myriad other issues constituents need help with, their request is now forwarded to the senators' new joint casework team.
While the team is still building to 10 members and ironing out logistics, the combined operation has already streamlined the process for students applying to attend a military academy. Instead of separately applying for the endorsement of each senator, the students have just one application that both senators consider before making their separate nominations to the academies.
Constituents calling for help won't be the only ones taking notice if the combined system works as hoped. Bell said other senate staff are watching to see if they can save money and increase their effectiveness in the one area where elected officials impact individual lives in a way that legislating can't.
Lee said if it doesn't go as planned, "there's a well-worn model for doing it separately. It could easily be undone.
"But I personally think it will work ... and I suspect if it works, others will follow."
A long shot
The well-worn model Lee refers to goes back to the early days of Congress, where diary entries from the likes of John Quincy Adams describe Revolutionary War veterans coming to him for help collecting their military pensions, among other more mundane matters for his constituents in Massachusetts, according to congressional histories.
After more than two centuries, tackling problems involving veterans benefits remains one of the bigger issues in the portfolio of case workers who primarily work out of the state offices of representatives and senators.
For Emily Wiscombe, who leads the team of veterans affairs caseworkers, it's hard not to cry when she recounts some of the cases she's worked to get veterans and their survivors medical benefits or medals that were either lost or never awarded.
"I love my veterans," she says between sobs and apologizes for getting emotional.
Sam Rex's case, which has been in the works for four years, typifies the time and painstaking detail of a military medal request, and the Congressional Medal of Honor is exceptionally difficult since it is the highest military decoration awarded by the government.
Then-Pvt. Dale Rex was a 22-year-old ammo carrier on Sept. 8, 1944, when the machine gunner he supplied was killed in a battle near the French village of Dornot and the Moselle River, five miles south of Metz. Rex manned the machine gun, fending off the enemy for more than 60 hours. When the Americans pulled back, Rex, a 6-foot-8 former BYU basketball player, stripped off his clothes, gave them to a wounded soldier and swam across the 300-foot wide Moselle four times to help transport the wounded to safety.
"Private Rex's intrepid actions, personal bravery and zealous devotion to duty exemplify the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States and reflect great credit upon himself, the 5th Infantry Division, and the United States Army," his citation for the Distinguished Service Cross read.
Rex, who was promoted to sergeant after the battle near Metz, was killed by sniper fire the following December.
Sam Rex wants to upgrade his uncle's award to the Congressional Medal of Honor and has compiled a 2-inch-thick file of documentation, including a letter from one of his uncle's commanding officers that confided Sgt. Dale Rex should have received the Congressional Medal of Honor. But a formal recommendation for the award was never referred up the chain of command as officers apparently turned their attention to pushing into Germany and ending the war, according to Rex and Wiscombe.
While that letter is a key component, Wiscombe learned on a recent visit with the Army's chief of awards and decorations branch in Washington about other facts and documentation she still needs to gather to make a strong case.
"It may not happen, but we're not going to give up," Wiscombe said.
Rex, 71, said he initially worked with Lee's office because he wasn't certain how long Hatch would be in office. When he heard Lee and Romney would both recommend the award for his uncle, he wasn't sure if that was a good thing.
"I love Trump, and I thought because Romney hasn't been too kind to the president I wondered if that would be a distraction because (the medal) is awarded at the pleasure of the president," Rex said, referring to Romney's criticism of Trump before and since the senator took office.
"But Emily says (the signatures of both senators) will help get the information to the committees and people it has to go through. ... That sounds great to me," he said.
Who gets credit
While senators and representatives do wield some influence based on their seniority and committee assignments, they are careful not to make demands or cut legal corners.
"If there's a glitch in the system or something that's been done inaccurately, we can help with that," Romney said. "What we can't do, however, is change the law ... we still follow the law."
It's Monday morning, May 6, and seven caseworkers are gathered around a conference table in the Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building in downtown Salt Lake City for a weekly reporting, planning and brainstorming session. When hiring is complete, the full team will number 10 caseworkers.
Lee-Romney joint casework director Jessica Christopher takes notes as each member reported the number cases opened, closed and pending in the areas of veterans affairs, immigration, passports and visas, and entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. They calendar events they will attend this month to meet new and established contacts the caseworkers work with at various federal agencies.
Christopher reminds the team to send thank-you letters to those contacts who helped them resolve issues for their constituents. "We need to get those out so they notice the next time they see one of our cases," she said.
In an interview, Christopher said a critical piece of casework is developing a network of contacts within federal agencies and departments who can cut through the red tape and resolve issues quickly.
The meeting concluded with a discussion of next steps to resolve a difficult case of a disabled Somali refugee who arrived in the U.S. in the mid-1990s but had been recently denied Social Security benefits because he couldn't verify his birthdate. Refugees are often given the birthday of Jan. 1 of a given year if their country of origin doesn't keep records such as birth certificates.
Resolving those types of cases that can arguably win the loyalty of voters to a particular senator or representative regardless of the elected official's politics or party affiliation. But research into whether strong constituent casework can determine the electability of someone is mixed — some research finds casework is crucial come election time, while other studies say it's irrelevant.
But both Romney and Lee say the motive behind joining forces isn't who gets credit, but whether a constituent gets their problem solved.
But there is a benefit to the senators, to be sure. Under a complicated formula allocating office space in a senator's home state, combining their casework operation will allow them to open an office in Price for better outreach into eastern Utah.9 comments on this story
What may work for senators, who represent the entire state, however, doesn't appear to work for members of the House, who represent different districts.
“To combine casework is an interesting concept, but doesn’t make much sense in the House," said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and the state's senior member of Congress. "While the constituencies of a House member are so varied one from another, so too are the needs. This calls for specialized case workers more familiar with the communities and regions of each House district.”