Once the election results roll in, the freshman class of the 113th Congress will have until its January swearing-in to prepare for life on Capitol Hill.
But four new Members will have less time to get ready.
As in virtually all special elections for seats left unexpectedly vacant by a lawmaker’s resignation or death, the winning candidate gets sworn in to Congress almost immediately so he or she can begin working on a committee, voting with the party and serving the district’s constituents.
The same goes for special elections that are scheduled to coincide with the general elections. The experience of joining Congress for the lame-duck session, however, is very different.
The special-election candidates who will learn tonight whether they’ll replace former Reps. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) and Geoff Davis (R-Ky.) and the late Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) will get a two-month lead on their fellow freshmen in establishing voting records and getting to know their way around the labyrinthine Capitol campus.
They will spend these months voting on significant issues, including possibly legislation to avert the fiscal cliff. As an added perk, they will be the first four Members to choose their new offices, bypassing the room assignment lottery that determines Capitol Hill real estate for all other freshmen.
It’s an experience Reps. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) and Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), who were sworn in as freshmen during the 2010 lame-duck session, describe as both thrilling and daunting.
“It was trial by fire,” Stutzman said.
“We were running around, a little crazy, a little hectic,” Reed echoed. “The bells [for votes] would go off and we would just rush out of wherever we were.”
When a lawmaker vacates a Congressional seat mid-session, the Clerk of the House takes over, stripping the office of its political affiliation and ensuring its only function is to handle constituent services. Staffers employed during their former boss’s tenure remain on payroll until the new Member is installed through special election, at which point the office becomes affiliated with a political party, or in rare instances is classified as independent. It’s up to the new boss to decide whether to keep current employees or hire new ones.
Roll Call predicts that none of the special elections occurring today will result in party shifts, meaning there could be some staff retention from the previous Member’s tenure — a major time-saver for new lawmakers arriving during the lame-duck session.
This is especially likely in the case of Donald Payne Jr., the New Jersey Democrat who is running for his late father’s seat. The other candidates who are expected to be sworn in when Congress reconvenes next week are Washington Democrat Suzan DelBene, Michigan Republican Kerry Bentivolio and Kentucky Republican Thomas Massie.
But staffing a new office is just one piece of the balancing act for freshmen who arrive during the lame duck, when the schedule is often irregular and confusing.
Stutzman learned that lesson the hard way.
“I didn’t have TVs in the new office yet, so we couldn’t keep up with the floor schedule,” he said. “There was a late suspension vote scheduled for the DREAM Act, but we thought we were done for the night. I put my cellphone on silent. Then I saw I had all these missed calls from [then-Republican Chief Deputy Whip] Kevin McCarthy asking where I was. I just got here and I already missed a big vote!”
“Lame-duck freshmen” also have to juggle the business of being a lawmaker with attending the November orientation sessions required for all new Members.
Because he constantly had to dart in and out of orientation seminars during the last days of the 111th Congress, Stutzman said he wonders whether the freshmen who were sworn in at the beginning of the 112th Congress actually knew more than he did.
But Reed said he got a leg up during the lame-duck session that was invaluable.
“You have a seniority bump over the freshmen class coming in ... you have that precursor of experience, know the lay of the land, where the floor is and how to get there,” Reed said. “It does have its advantages.”