Freshmen reflect on first term

Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho) remembers one of his freshman-term bloopers with an embarrassed grin.

He got so sidetracked talking with reporters in the House Speaker’s Lobby that he nearly missed a vote. 

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Realizing how tardy he was, he bolted through the doors to the House floor, plunged his voting card into the “nay” slot, and returned to the Speaker’s Lobby to finish his conversation with the media. 

The only problem: He hadn’t voted on the bill he thought he had. Minnick had unwittingly voted against a resolution expressing Congress’s support for peace in Thailand. 

“I thought I was voting on something else,” he said. “That’s a rookie mistake. I didn’t check to see what I was voting on.”

As the 111th Congress nears its end, Minnick and many of the other 54 freshmen shared tales of their amateur foibles, revisited their most memorable moments and devised a few suggestions on how they’d like to see Congress change should they return to Capitol Hill next year.

Many members who spoke with The Hill used the age-old saying “It’s like drinking out of a fire hose” to describe the overwhelming process of getting used to Congress. 

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said he could have benefited from a lot more training on parliamentary procedure when he first got to Washington.

“It took me about six months to really feel comfortable [on the House floor], and not having staff whisper in your ear what to say or do next,” he said.

As for Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.), he learned a bit about parliamentary procedure using trial and error. He was speaking on the House floor during a series of one-minute speeches when he got a quick lesson.

“[My speech] went way over time, and I didn’t know what to do,” Cao said. “I felt a little bit stupid. The hammers were beating, and people were standing up. Finally one of the members stood up and said, ‘Let me yield 30 seconds to Mr. Cao.’ ”

Other freshmen recalled more serious moments. Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) remembered an encounter with veteran journalist Dan Rather around the time the lawmaker was trying to figure out what he wanted his legislative legacy to be. Grayson said Rather told him to stay true to his principles, no matter what.

“That helped me to really understand the right way to do the job with truth and courage,” Grayson said. “Whether I’m here for two years or 20 years, I want people to know I did everything I could to try and save lives.”

Another unforgettable — if scary — moment for Grayson came during the healthcare debate. 

Just before the vote on the healthcare bill, a woman called Grayson’s residence, and his 5-year-old child answered the phone on speaker, Grayson said. 

“She said, ‘If you vote for healthcare, I’ll kill you,’ ” he said. “When your 5-year-old gets a death threat, that’s a pretty amazing thing. I realized how malevolent people can be.”

The healthcare bill wasn’t the only piece of legislation that had an impact on the 111th Congress’s freshmen. The $787 stimulus bill and the bank bailout also left strong impressions, even to a freshman Republican, despite the fact that none of those efforts was on the GOP’s agenda. 

“Those are pretty memorable moments,” Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) said. “Everybody was packed in here, and they passed [the bills], and everybody clapped. Obviously I wasn’t clapping, but those were big, emotional votes.”

Some freshmen are still coming to terms with one of Congress’s ugly realities: It’s a politically charged place.

“I’m most upset by the extreme partisanship,” Minnick said. “We don’t make the effort to try and find bipartisan people to formulate bills. If we did, I think we’d have better legislation. And we would also pass more bills.

“I find that very frustrating,” Minnick said, “because my experience is as a businessman, and always in business, you make an attempt to get good ideas from everyone. Here, we don’t take that first step.”

Minnick advised the next freshman class to make the effort to get to know their colleagues outside of Congress. He suggested they share a residence or play sports, or that they work out at the House gym, like he does. 

“It’s hard not to get to know the guy at the next locker or the next shower stall,” Minnick said with a smile. “It’s revealing in a variety of senses.”

Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) said the relentless schedule makes it difficult to strike up close bonds with colleagues. He added that the strenuous commute — at least five hours for him each way — takes its toll. 

“It’s never any fun to get up on a Monday morning and fly here and then on a Thursday or Friday go back,” Polis said. “It gets kind of grueling. I’d much rather that we met for two weeks and then off for two weeks.”

Chaffetz agreed with his Democratic classmate, saying he would prefer to spend a whole week on Capitol Hill and then the next week in his district. 

“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to spending nights away from my family,” said Chaffetz, who has three children and a wife but, when in Washington, sleeps on a cot in his office.

“I love the work,” he said, “but there comes that point in the night when it’s just you and the cot.”