By Emily Goodin - 01/23/13 12:28 AM EST
Freshman lawmakers survived their first few weeks in Congress with relatively few mishaps — though there were still instances of getting lost in the Capitol complex and enduring canceled flights.
They’ve also picked up some tips on how to handle Capitol Hill: Walk outside (you don’t get lost as much when you can see the dome); go to all your committee meetings; and learn everyone’s name.
Rep. Luke Messer, a freshman Republican from Indiana, agreed.
“I’m enjoying it, but the pace of it is getting remarkable. My day is spent in 15-minute increments and there’s not much time to sit down.”
The newly elected members took office on Jan. 3 and most filled the first few days on the job by setting up their offices, hiring staff and getting their committee assignments.
Then they left to work in their districts and returned to Capitol Hill last week for their first series of votes since swearing-in day.
One of the most daunting orders of business for new members is finding their way around the Capitol complex, a maze of buildings, stairways, tunnels and passages.
“Luckily, my staff knows their way around, so that’s very helpful to me,” said Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.).
“The signs help,” she said, in reference to the signs that decorate nearly every wall of the tunnel system that runs underneath Capitol Hill, from the House office buildings to the Capitol building itself.
Standing outside the House chamber, Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), when asked how many times he’s gotten lost, said, “More than I care to tell you. It’s by chance I’m here.”
He added that it helps walking outside and “not going through the tunnels. I can focus on the dome.”
Getting around the Capitol presents a special challenge to freshman Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who lost both her legs while serving as a helicopter pilot in Iraq. She has prosthetics but also uses a wheelchair.
She praised Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his office for helping make the transition easy for her.
“I was blown away by how gracious they were,” she told The Hill.
Because of her needs, Duckworth didn’t go into the office lottery — where the newly elected members pick numbers and, based on that ranking, get to choose their office. Instead, the Architect of the Capitol’s office chose a space for her that they could make accessible.
“I got Cannon 104 — an office no freshman deserves because it is far too large. But it is the one office that the Architect of the Capitol said ‘we can make completely accessible for her’ and they’ve completely overdone it. Now I can have staff members who are in wheelchairs.”
She added: “The Speaker gave me an ADA [Americans With Disabilities Act] aide, so I’ve got someone who pushes me around and up the hills. Nothing we can’t overcome.”
Other lawmakers have had to deal with a problem that plagues frequent travelers — canceled flights. Most members have a grueling commute: arriving in Washington on Monday evening or Tuesday morning and returning to their districts on Thursday night or Friday morning.
The farther from Washington, the tougher the trip.
Rep. Mark Takano, a Democrat from California, already had a flight canceled and risked missing the first round of votes last week.
“I learned my lesson — we’re going to avoid scheduling flights the same day as votes,” he told The Hill last week.
Takano was able to reschedule. The new flight included a connecting flight through Chicago, where he got lucky again — by avoiding any winter weather issues that might have caused a delay.
“I got in at 9 a.m. this morning and I’m dog-tired,” he said, admitting he slept about 45 minutes on his flight. “I missed my staff meeting.”
Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D) also has a long commute, but it has been problem-free — so far.
“Luckily, I’m able to sleep on the red-eye,” she said.
The 84 new members of the House are easy to recognize: Most are early for House votes, have a slightly lost expression and bring staff with them everywhere.
Some have already learned how to avoid the members of the press who wait outside the House floor, ready to pounce: You keep your head down, or talk on the phone, or say you have a meeting.
Others are super-polite — Garcia asked House staffers if he could bring a bottle of water on the House floor — and friendly. They share elevators and let other lawmakers go ahead of them.
And they’re working together — for now.
Messer, president of the freshman Republican class, is talking with his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.), about setting up some social gatherings between the two sides.
“We’re trying to have some social events and work together across the aisle,” he said.
And all the new members are getting advice from experienced lawmakers.
“The older members have been very kind,” Takano said. When Takano was fighting off a cold, fellow California Democrat Loretta Sanchez directed him to the House physician.
Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) knows how they feel. The second-term lawmaker was in their shoes two years ago as part of the historic freshman Republican class of 2010.
His advice for them: “Hire good staff. Get to know other members — and I found others to be very, very helpful. And attend as many meetings as you can and find out what the issues are. Once you get your committee assignments, attend committee meetings. But also contribute, because new members have a different perspective.”
As for the best advice she’s gotten, freshman Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) said it was “to stay calm,” adding, “It’s a little like drinking from a fire hose, but we’ll settle in.”