Orientation puts focus on details

Before new members can vote or make floor speeches, they need to take care of more mundane details, such as hiring an office staff, learning the House rules and locating the closest bathrooms.

To that end, new House members wrapped up their official two-day orientation seminar last night and will remain in Washington through the week to meet their new colleagues, interview potential staff members and find their way around Capitol Hill.
Before new members can vote or make floor speeches, they need to take care of more mundane details, such as hiring an office staff, learning the House rules and locating the closest bathrooms.

To that end, new House members wrapped up their official two-day orientation seminar last night and will remain in Washington through the week to meet their new colleagues, interview potential staff members and find their way around Capitol Hill.
christopher d. costa
Rep.-elect Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) arrives at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and tries to find his bag on the carousel.

Most of the 38 freshmen-to-be arrived in town Saturday. House Administration Committee Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and a member of Rep. John Larson’s (D-Conn.) administration committee staff were at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport all day to greet the new members, as were a small gaggle of press and a Marine escort. They accompanied the freshmen and their travel companions to the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, where the new members each received an orientation packet and a BlackBerry.

Wide-eyed and eager to get started, the new members did not miss an opportunity to position themselves within their own ranks.

“I would like to serve my freshman class,” Rep.-elect Bobby Jindal (R-La.) said Saturday, waiting for his luggage in the baggage claim of National with his wife, Supriya, and 7-month-old son, Shaan. Jindal, who served as a health administrator in the Bush White House, is expected to be a prominent member of his freshman class.

Most new members deferred to leadership on questions about committee assignments, but a handful have already begun jockeying for good assignments.

Jindal, for example, has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the Energy and Commerce Committee, a panel that rarely accepts freshmen. Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.) has been lobbying GOP leadership on behalf of his home-state colleague for almost two months now, citing Jindal’s unique expertise on healthcare and budget issues, as well as the departure of three Louisiana congressmen who served on prominent committees. Departing Reps. Billy Tauzin Jr. (R) and Chris John (D) served on Energy and Commerce, and Rep. David Vitter (R), who won a Senate seat, served on Appropriations.

Subtext aside, the past two days were more about the details of establishing a congressional office than anything else.

The orientation packets each member received contained sections on the rules of Congress and franking regulations and an ethics guide, as well as equipment and staff recommendations. Those details, along with seminars about dealing with the press, hiring staff and setting up an office budget, were then covered in the meetings Sunday and yesterday.

During his opening remarks Sunday in the Cannon Caucus Room, Ney stressed the importance of logistics over politics early on, telling the new members, “If you’re not focusing on constituents, you can’t focus on legislation.”

He also counseled new members to pay particular attention to hiring an office staff and warned them, “You can’t go too fast in hiring and you can’t go too slow.”

The freshmen mingled amicably — even across party lines — as they met at the airport, in the Cannon Caucus Room and on the steps of the Capitol, where they posed for their class picture yesterday, sizing each other up as they prepared to legislate.

Their schedule for the week was packed, with the two days of seminars and then a series of dinners and cocktail receptions throughout the week welcoming them to town. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had welcoming receptions on Saturday night, and then most of the new members attended “a night of Blue Jeans and BBQ” on Sunday at the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum hosted by a number of financial institutions, including America’s Community Bankers and Fannie Mae, along with Ney and Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.).

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) also hosted a welcome reception and will conduct candlelight tours of the Capitol for the new members one night this week.

The big event of the week is the freshman room draw, which will be held Friday morning in 2172 Rayburn.

Most freshman members brought their spouses along for the week and were grateful for the warm welcome and military escort. This was only the second class to be welcomed by the military.

Some members had made a number of hires already, while others were still looking for a chief of staff and a political director. Setting up a Washington office and district offices is a time-consuming process, but most had looked to their predecessors for help.

Many members were going to have to adapt to a hectic travel schedule. Rep.-elect Dave Reichert (R-Wash.) was still a little tired from his five-hour flight out from Seattle on Saturday night, a flight he’ll be making almost weekly in the coming two years.

There were some familiar faces in the class, such as former and soon-to-be-current Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.), and familiar family names, such as Rep.-elect Connie Mack IV (R-Fla.), whose father, former Sen. Connie Mack III, came to National to greet his son on his arrival to Washington.

“It brings back some memories of when I first arrived,” Mack III said in the baggage claim while his son was talking to airline representatives about a lost bag. Mack III, who also served in the House, said his own reception was not nearly as elaborate.

Nor, for that matter, was the Senate’s welcoming committee. While a Marine was helping Rep.-elect Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) and his wife, Kathy, grab their bags from the luggage carousel, Sen.-elect Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a three-term former congressman who knows his way around National Airport, was lugging his own bags onto a cart, undetected by any of the other political staff in attendance.