News & Politics

New Members of Congress Adjust to Washington

How do new members of Congress learn about life in Washington? The hard way. But first, there’s . . .

Let’s start with the basics.

“The restrooms are down the hall to the right,” said a Hill staffer as the new House members took notes.

Things would get more complicated. During the next week they would learn about terrorism, ethics, housing, travel, parking, fundraising, reporters, and personal safety.

Someone wanted to know what was in the sealed oak cabinets next to the elevators. Those contain “emergency escape hoods” to be used in the event of a biochemical attack. Fifteen hoods are standard equipment in every congressional office.

That got their attention.

“So is this the Capitol?” asked Michele Bachmann, a Republican from Minnesota.

No, she was told. That’s across the street. This is the Cannon building.

“I was here begging for money last spring,” Bachmann said.

“I’ve never run for anything in my entire life,” said Florida Democrat Tim Mahoney. “Now I’m in Washington trying to be a member of Congress.”

Thirteen of his 54 freshman colleagues also had no prior political experience. Given the mood of the voting public in November, that’s a big reason most of them were here. Mahoney, a businessman, won the seat that belonged to ex-representative Mark Foley, who resigned when it was reported that he’d sent lewd text messages to male pages. Mahoney admits the scandal helped his campaign.

Scandal also helped Nick Lampson, a Democrat from Texas. He isn’t a rookie—he served in the House from 1997 to 2005. Departed Republican majority leader Tom DeLay game-planned Lampson’s defeat two years ago with a shrewd redistricting plan, and now Lampson was back representing DeLay’s old district.

“He tried to influence the election this time, too, but it didn’t work,” said Lampson, winner over DeLay’s lame-duck Republican successor.

Lampson didn’t need to attend Freshmen Orientation, a five-day cram course designed to teach new arrivals how to be members of the House. But he decided to come to network and enjoy being the guy who replaced DeLay.

“Hey, Bro,” said Representative Anthony Weiner, a four-term Democrat from New York. Looking tanned and rested after running unopposed, Weiner stopped by to bond with the incoming Democrats. The last Capitol Hill power shift of this magnitude occurred when Republicans led by Newt Gingrich took control of the House in 1994. Weiner, a talent scout for the big-spending Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (with five possible vacancies to fill), was getting to know the people who put Democrats back in the majority.

Three attendees were involved in races still being decided. Democrat Joe Courtney was ahead of his Republican opponent in Connecticut by 200 votes. In the Florida contest to succeed Representative Katherine Harris, who lost her bid for a Senate seat, both candidates showed up for orientation, each hoping to be the one to stay.

When the Republican, Vern Buchanan—who held a narrow lead—was invited to a White House reception, his Democratic opponent, Christine Jennings, didn’t complain about being snubbed. “That’s okay,” Jennings told a reporter. She was sure she’d be on top when all the votes were tallied.

The Class of 2006 includes 41 Democrats and 13 Republicans. All but a dozen in the group are baby boomers; three new members were born before 1946, and nine were born after 1964. There’s a former mayor, a car dealer, a funeral director, a sheriff, a retired admiral, a doctor, a minister, two bankers, two lobbyists, five college professors, 24 lawyers, a rock musician, a wrestling coach, and an ex-NFL quarterback.

Heath Shuler, a North Carolina Democrat and once a number-one draft pick for the Washington Redskins, said he wished things had worked out differently when he was here before. Shuler has bulked up since his playing days, but he’s sure that teamwork is as important to winning in politics as it is in football. Calling himself a moderate, even a conservative on some issues, he hopes his House career lasts longer than his three years with the Skins.

Democrats may be the new majority, but the freshmen didn’t sound like standard-issue liberals. Pennsylvania Democrat Patrick Murphy, at 33 the youngest new member of the House and the only Iraq War veteran in the class, was wearing his 82nd Airborne Division lapel pin. The division’s motto: death from above. He’s for a strong defense and expanding active-duty forces. His experience as an Army officer in Iraq, he said, convinced him that the United States has run out of military options and needs to involve Arab nations in finding a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

Back home, Democrats and Republicans alike had spoken out against special interests and all the other things Washington is famous for. Now they were about to become congressional franchisees, soon to be joined at the wallet with some of the same special interests they just denounced. And all of them worried about what job-threatening encounters might occur between now and 2008. One threat was waiting when they arrived for day one of orientation.

As the freshmen headed for the Cannon Caucus Room, a mob of reporters and photographers sprang into action. Capitol police told the press horde to clear a path for the frosh. When that didn’t work, one officer let out an ear-piercing whistle and started screaming, “Get back! Get back now!”

“The politicians can stand over there—why can’t we?” demanded Molly Hooper, a producer with Fox News. “Whatever happened to the First Amendment?”

The freshmen looked confused. They wanted to be interviewed. A few had gotten their pictures on the front page of the New York Times the day before in a story that profiled new Democrats. What about the Republicans? They’d like some coverage, too. Here were reporters from every major network, newspaper, and wire service, and the Capitol cops were chasing them away.

Once the police relaxed, the new people wanted to get as much exposure as they could.

“My hair’s a mess,” worried Michele Bachmann as a TV reporter got ready to interview her.

Mini press conferences broke out all around the third-floor caucus room and on two balconies with the Capitol dome in the background. Republican Mary Fallin, former lieutenant governor of Oklahoma, said she wanted to shrink the size of government. Pennsylvania Democrat Joe Sestak, a retired admiral, pledged to make integrity the cornerstone of his agenda. “Don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal” was his campaign mantra. Sestak beat longtime Republican representative Curt Weldon, currently under investigation for allegedly helping his daughter land lucrative lobbying contracts.

Former sheriff Brad Ellsworth, an Indiana Democrat, couldn’t figure out why the voters picked him: “I’m lucky, I guess.” With all the suspected wrongdoing on Capitol Hill, Ellsworth did think he had something to offer. “My investigative background could come in handy,” he said.

No one in the freshman class had more built-in newsworthiness than Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress. His win was big news worldwide, especially in the Middle East.

“People want you to be more than you really are,” said Ellison, a former criminal-defense attorney. “I’m not an imam, not a sheik, not an Islamic scholar. I say my prayers, give to charity, and stay out of trouble.”

Ellison said he planned to continue saying his prayers, as required of Muslims, every day on Capitol Hill, although he’d be flexible with timing if a vote on the House floor interfered.

With leadership races going on in both parties, freshmen got to see how the game is played almost as soon as they arrived. Two veterans, Steny Hoyer of Maryland and John Murtha of Pennsylvania, competing for the job of House majority leader courted Democrats with back-to-back receptions at the Library of Congress.

Murtha’s last-minute bid brought back talk of the Abscam scandal, an FBI sting that sent several lawmakers to prison—not the sort of thing newcomers wanted to be anywhere near.

In 1980, federal agents posing as emissaries of a rich Arab offered Murtha a $50,000 bribe to help with an immigration problem. Some of his colleagues took the bait. Murtha was more cautious. “I’m not interested—at this point,” he could be heard saying on an FBI videotape. “You know, we do business for a while, maybe I’ll be interested, maybe I won’t.” The money was tempting, but Murtha was reluctant to commit. “I expect to be in the [expletive deleted] leadership of the House,” he told the undercover agents.

Murtha was never indicted, and though he was named as a coconspirator in the bribery case, the House ethics committee took no action.

When he was endorsed for the majority leadership post by Nancy Pelosi, the next House Speaker, Democrats were confronted with a tough choice: Hoyer or Murtha?

Monday night there was a White House reception that Democrats and Republicans alike seemed to enjoy. Even Democrats who had campaigned against George Bush were excited. “I think he recognized me,” said Indiana Democrat Joe Donnelly, the head of an office-supply company that makes rubber stamps. Despite the presence of White House political director Karl Rove, there was “a feeling that there are no Democrats and Republicans,” Donnelly said, “just a bunch of people hanging around.”

“The President didn’t offer any specific encouragement to Republicans,” said Fallin, part of the new GOP minority. “He was just very friendly.”

“Friendly” was the mood all over town as the Class of 2006 was wined and dined by lobbyists and everyone else looking for the one thing they now had that was up for grabs: a vote in Congress. With political operatives hovering around the freshmen at cocktail parties, receptions, and dinners, some already were feeling pressured. They’d get used to that. With the average member of Congress having to raise more than $20,000 a week to pay for a reelection campaign, the pressure was just beginning.

Christine Jennings and Vern Buchanan, dubbed “the dueling duo” by reporters, were behaving like a couple going through a bitter divorce.

What made their race so weird was the Florida vote-counting fiasco in the 2000 presidential election. Katherine Harris, then Florida’s secretary of state, went on to serve two terms in the House representing the district Jennings and Buchanan were fighting over. Buchanan was leading by a little more than 300 votes, but 18,000 people who voted in one county had failed to cast ballots in the House contest. Jennings’s camp contended that electronic voting machines had failed, causing a problem so serious it could only be corrected by a new election.

After a nasty campaign that cost $8 million—the most expensive House race in the country—Jennings, a banker before she got into politics, and Buchanan, a car dealer, were keeping their distance from each other, which was easier after class hours, when Democrats and Republicans went their separate ways.

Among the events in hotels and restaurants all over town were gatherings no one could afford to miss. Besides the dinners by Speaker Dennis Hastert and soon-to-be Speaker Pelosi on separate nights in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, there was the GOP House-leadership reception at the Hay-Adams for new Republican members and Illinois representative Rahm Emanuel’s get-together for newly elected Democrats at the Billy Goat Tavern near the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, where the freshmen were staying.

Day Two began with the traditional class picture. A pair of buses pulled up to the East Front of the Capitol, and the freshmen, some sleep-deprived after a night of partying, took their places on the House steps. Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota Republican, stopped on the first landing and greeted everyone with handshakes.

Because groups of new lawmakers are seldom the same size, every class picture is posed differently. This one was arranged in an inverted “Y” up the steps and across a balcony. “Smile!” said Stephen Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee who pulled out a digital camera and pointed it at the crowd below. After the House photographer took his shots, the press got its chance. It isn’t easy holding a smile for five minutes, but this bunch was good at it, especially Bachmann, who was emerging as Miss Congeniality.

The decision was made that Buchanan and Jennings would both be in the picture, which could become a collector’s item when one of them has to stay home. Buchanan landed a spot close to the front; Jennings, a petite blonde, got stuck in the back surrounded by men in dark suits.

It’s generally considered bad form for freshmen to talk publicly about what committees they’d like to be on. If you don’t get the ones you want, you can look like a loser. But that didn’t stop some new members. Plaintive letters to committee chairs emphasizing work habits and a willingness to take orders are sometimes effective; so is the good word from a key House veteran looking for a devoted lieutenant.

There were plenty of Hill staffers looking for work. Résumés were pouring into the New Member Service Center. Many freshmen had received more than 500. In addition to an annual salary of $165,200, free mailing privileges, and a generous travel allowance, each House member gets roughly $1 million a year to hire office help.

By midmorning, money was on everyone’s mind. After only a day in Washington, the freshmen agreed they loved their new jobs, even though they wouldn’t be officially at work until they were sworn in. But with new laws governing campaign contributions, how were they going to find enough support to run their reelection campaigns?

“There are so many rules,” sighed Michele Bachmann. She said she would be praying for guidance.

That’s not uncommon. Every session of the House and Senate is opened with a prayer, and several years ago, as campaign season was about to begin, the Reverend Richard Halverson, the Senate chaplain at the time, offered this appeal:

“Sovereign Lord . . . we pray for the senators running for reelection. . . . Give wisdom to those who direct their campaigns. Give the senators special persuasion in speech . . . and provide wherever needed adequate campaign funds.”➝

With formal training sessions over, most freshmen spent their third day on the Hill interviewing potential staffers and planning how to run their offices. That night the House Administration Committee, which manages orientation along with supplying everything from parking spaces to whiteout, held a reception at the Botanic Gardens. The committee until recently was headed by Bob Ney, who resigned in the wake of a lobbying scandal. Current chair Vernon Ehlers, like other Republicans in charge of committees, would soon be handing over control to the Democrats.

Many of the freshmen brought their spouses, who had just attended an orientation of their own presided over by Paul Pelosi, who’s married to the House Speaker-in-waiting. In a jungle of potted plants, with a Marine Corps combo playing in the background, members mingled and ate finger food.

Outside, the Capitol police seemed to be on high alert.

“Are you a member of Congress?” a sergeant asked Ed Perlmutter, a Democrat from Colorado.

“I’m going to be,” said Perlmutter. The officer waved him in.

“Oh, boy—more food,” groaned one freshman waiting in line.

Lawmakers spend much of their time being fed—banquets, barbecues, and buffets play a role in the legislative process. But sometimes queasiness sets in. That’s what was happening now, and the race for House majority leader was the cause. The next morning incoming Democrats would have to decide between Steny Hoyer and John Murtha.

Dave Loebsack, an Iowa Democrat and political-science professor, knew all about Murtha’s role in Abscam. Asked whether that would influence his vote, he thought for a few seconds before issuing his first official “no comment.”

House Republicans voted to keep John Boehner as their leader and Roy Blunt as whip. Speaker Dennis Hastert, after serving longer than any GOP Speaker in history, would go back to being a congressman from Illinois. Democrats approved Nancy Pelosi to be House Speaker, the first woman to hold the job.

Hoyer and Murtha campaigned for majority leader in lengthy essays in the Hill newspaper. Hoyer said he was proud of his service to the Democratic Party and looked “forward to taking our country in a new direction.”

Murtha talked about his career in the Marines and 33 years in Congress, how he would speak “truth to power.”

When the votes were counted, Hoyer had won, 149 to 86.

That evening Pelosi appeared at Hoyer’s victory party. They joined hands as they had all day for the TV cameras.

Friday, the final day of orientation, was devoted to a major issue: selecting an office. Turf is the most important commodity on the Hill, and office location can mean the difference between huffing and puffing to floor votes and spending an extra few minutes with a valued contributor.

Friday morning, new members drew numbers to decide the order in which they would choose among 49 available offices. John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat and son of retiring senator Paul Sarbanes, got to choose first.

Freshmen and their assistants spent the next four hours fanning across the Hill to inspect office space. At 1 o’clock they returned to the Rayburn building to make their selections. Only two people knew what to expect: Sarbanes, who would get the best of the vacated offices, and Michael Arcuri, a Democrat from New York who drew number 49 and would get stuck with the one nobody else wanted.

Buchanan and Jennings had to agree on an office that only one of them would get to use, yet having the number 39 pretty much guaranteed there wouldn’t be much left for them to choose from. After they made their choice, they would have to select a floor plan and agree on a color scheme for the carpeting and drapes.

Jennings said that the experience was awkward but the two were trying to treat each other “respectfully.” That was a big improvement over the way they acted during the campaign.

Following the orientation, there was an issues conference for new members at the John F. Kennedy School of Government—“tax-and-spend training,” some Republicans called it—followed by party retreats and strategy sessions. Soon the Class of 2006 would no longer be outsiders. And when they are up for reelection two years from now, the hard part won’t be running against Washington, as many of them did to get here—it will be running against Washington with them as part of it.

A week after orientation, Republican Buchanan’s 367-vote victory was certified by the state of Florida. The next day Jennings filed suit.

Bill Thomas is the author of Club Fed: Power, Money, Sex, and Violence on Capitol Hill and other books.

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