Freshmen arrive in Congress with many questions

The U.S. Capitol
A view of the Capitol building in Washington.

By Laurie Kellman and Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - Where to live? Whom to hire? What's a voting card - and where are the bathrooms?

More than 100 members of Congress are in Washington this week for the first time since winning election, trading the loftiness of campaign speeches for mundane lessons in how to do their new jobs.

It's freshman orientation on Capitol Hill, and the larger-than-usual class of 2010 is getting a crash course on how to navigate the next two years.

Talk of changing the nation's direction? That's on the back burner for now. The newly elected House members - 85 Republicans, a meager nine Democrats - need actual directions around their new workplace. The Senate is having its own orientation at the same time.

Instead of American exceptionalism, his election night theme, Rep.-elect Tim Scott, R-S.C., is focused on Washington's exceptional rental prices.

"Nothing here is affordable, is what I've learned," says Scott, who might share an apartment with classmates.

Chip Cravaack
Republican Chip Cravaack celebrates after defeating 18-term DFL Rep. Jim Oberstar in Minnesota's 8th Congressional District on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010. He is Minnesota's only new member of Congress after the election.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., told supporters in his victory speech that he would "stand strong in the epic battle that we have in front of us to take back our country."

But on Monday, Kinzinger will be looking for a one-bedroom apartment, setting up an interview with a prospective chief of staff and figuring out whether he wants to deal with a commute or live within walking distance of the Capitol.

Even before the freshmen learn lawmaking, they'll be figuring out how to live with a new set of rules, customs and rituals. Here to help: an array of congressional committees and veterans, and a constellation of foundations and lobbyists.

The second-ranking Republican, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, had a 144-page book in the mail to new members within hours of Election Day. "Hit The Ground Running" explains the nuts and bolts of setting up a congressional office, hiring staff, managing the office budget and being an employer. It also offers some general rules of the road.

"Do: Get answers for any ethical questions you may have if you are in doubt," according to the manual, an updated version of one originally sent out by former House Republican leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.

"Don't: Completely disappear from the public" between Election Day and the new Congress. "Even though you won't take office until January, many of your constituents will view you as their member of Congress."

Lodgings? Taken care of - at least for this week. The House Administration Committee, charged with the House's day-to-day operations, is putting the group up at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel and shuttling the members to and from the Capitol.

Food? Virtually everywhere the incoming lawmakers go during their Sunday-to-Friday stay. Receptions, working lunches and welcome dinners dot the schedule. In between, members-to-be attend seminars on everything from setting up an office to hiring, and how the electronic voting system works on the House floor.

A schedule obtained by The Associated Press shows a wow-worthy social schedule.

The freshmen were to hear from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on Sunday and dine with the man in line to replace her, Ohio Republican John Boehner.

Pelosi hosts an open house Monday in what, for now, is her Capitol suite. Dinner follows next door in magnificent Statuary Hall, according to the schedule. There also are special events for their aides and spouses.

The Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit group funded by dozens of corporations and industry groups with business before Congress, is hosting a reception Monday and, two days later, a seminar, "Navigating the First 90 Days."

"Everyone has told me expect more information than you can possibly digest, but just take good notes," said Rep.-elect Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, one of the few Democrats who will be attending.

A rare Democratic face in a sea of Republicans, Richmond said he's excited to meet and interview some of the most respected and experienced Capitol Hill staffers in the party - newly jobless after their bosses lost their re-election battles. It's all a little overwhelming to some.

"What I'll probably do is sleep in my office for a little while until I can find a like-minded freshman to room with," said Rep.-elect Bobby Schilling, R-Ill., a pizza shop owner who has no intention of moving his wife and 10 children to Washington.

Rep-elect Nan Hayworth, R-N.Y., is way ahead of many of her colleagues. She's landed an experienced chief of staff who found her an apartment two blocks from the Capitol. But she has to get office space - there's a room draw Friday - and figure out how to work effectively in Congress' often slow and tedious culture.

"I'm a surgeon," said the ophthamologist-turned congresswoman. "We're used to acting on the evidence expeditiously."

For some, the education in the quirks, perks and pressures of Congress has begun.

Florida tea party candidate Allen West, for example, is looking for a replacement for his chief of staff. The Republican's chosen candidate, conservative radio host Joanne Kaufman, first accepted, then rejected the job Thursday after reports surfaced of Kaufman's incendiary on-air comments, which included calling Pelosi "garbage."

Also Thursday, all 300 Broward County schools were locked down for a few hours after Kaufman's station, WFTL, received what police said was a threatening e-mail from a man who said he felt a connection to the talk show host.

West issued a statement saying he deeply regretted Kaufman's decision to turn down the job.

The fishbowl-like nature of their new post - they're apt to be trailed and peppered with questions by packs of reporters and news photographers - may not have sunk in for some freshmen.

Rep.-elect Sean Duffy, R-Wis., a reality show star in 1997, now wants to shun the national media in favor of local news outlets until he takes his oath of office in January.

"Just about every media outlet has called wanting to talk to him, so it's about the fairest way to handle it," his spokeswoman, Wendy Reimann, said in an e-mail.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)