The notion that Congress is like college usually gets highlighted a few times each year: When members are rushing to meet several legislative deadlines before a lengthy recess, they tend to act very much like students at the end of the semester — pulling all-nighters to cram for exams and churn out papers assigned months ago.
But never is Capitol Hill more like a collegiate campus than in the middle of every even-numbered November, when all the newcomer lawmakers arrive — embodying a yeasty mix of wide-eyed naïveté and intensely competitive focus — to begin learning how dramatically their lives are about to change. It may be officially dubbed New Member Orientation , but those who have lived through it routinely describe it as “freshman week.”
Indoctrination into the formalities and folkways of life as a member of Congress begin Wednesday on both sides of the Hill. Six Republicans who have never held federal office before, joined by four Republicans and a single Democrat preparing to decamp from the House, will spend until Friday being instructed by their new Senate colleagues and some senior staffers on the parliamentary procedures, ethical expectations and bureaucratic necessities of their new workplace. (Two potential GOP Senate freshmen won’t be there because their fates won’t be certain for some time, thanks to slow ballot counting in Dan Sullivan’s Alaska and the runoff in Rep. Bill Cassidy’s Louisiana.)
A similar series of bipartisan orientation meetings, starting with a massive cocktail party Wednesday evening and lasting until a lottery for office assignments on Nov. 19, is in store for at least 42 Republicans and 17 Democrats who have secured seats in the House. (Hope is still alive for GOP challengers to five Democratic incumbents in races that remain too close to call , and a pair of seats won’t be filled until the Dec. 6 Louisiana runoff.)
Those officially sanctioned sessions, truth be told, will probably prove to be the least interesting (albeit essential) lessons of the coming week. They are the functional equivalent of learning how the cafeteria meal plans work, when the IT help desk is open in the library or how the goofy football mascot got its name.
Much more useful, for most college freshmen as well as congressional freshmen, will be all the informal connections and back-channel communications that start getting made.
Theoretically, every one of them will show up for convocation (or swearing-in day) on equal footing — the valedictorian who gets admitted via early decision (or the primary victor in an open district drawn safely for her party) has the same standing at the start as the kid taken off the waiting list at the last minute (or the winner of the razor-close race decided days after the election).
But in Congress, as at every topflight institution of higher learning, the social stratification gets started as soon as each new class assembles for this first time — and so does the intellectual and political culling of the herd.
Thanks to midterm elections saturation, and with virtually every debate and 30-second TV spot preserved on YouTube, new members won’t need to wait for their first introductions before starting to form opinions of the other newbies — just as teenagers put their social-media skills to work sizing up their future roommates long before move-in day.
(Does North Carolina Democrat Alma Adams always wear a hat? Does West Virginia Republican Evan Jenkins really look like Dennis Quaid? Can one of the newcomers from the Northern Virginia suburbs, Democrat Don Beyer or Republican Barbara Comstock, help me find a cheap place to crash during weeks when there are votes?)
The initial round of face-to-face encounters still offer the best insights for taking the measure of potential collaborators, competitors or plain old pals — and one of the last chances for those with the most outsized reputations to try selling an alternate persona.
That’s why it will be worth watching to see if a clutch of senators-in-waiting sets off down a cordoned-off Capitol corridor, hoping to locate the fabled 19th century marble bathtubs hidden in the basement. Or if every House member-elect from Michigan (there are five) or California (at least six) ends up at the same restaurant on Eighth Street one evening — and remains together until last call at a bar on H Street early the next morning. Or if a duo from different generations or backgrounds (hoping they might be from different political parties would be too big a stretch) decides to share the rent on an English basement apartment. Or if a similar such pair gets into a clenched-teeth ideological argument while assembled for the official freshman House class photograph next week.
Such moments of bonding even before the markups (or the classes) begin can translate into useful (maybe even genuine) friendships that last an entire congressional (or collegiate) career. But at the same time the freshmen are sussing out their classmates, the savviest members of the Class of 2014 (and that’s most of them) also will be working the angles with the members of their leadership, the elders in their delegation and the chairmen of their preferred committees.
Just as the science nerd has figured out that waiting for registration is too risky a strategy for securing a spot in the organic chemistry section being taught by a Nobel nominee, the incoming member from a district where military installations generate tens of thousands of jobs knows it’s foolish to wait passively for assignment to the Armed Services Committee. While the student may hope to improve his odds by importuning and flattering the professor, someone such as Tom MacArthur of New Jersey may spend some of freshman week doing the same with members of the House Republican Steering Committee.
And just like the soccer recruit who posts on Facebook about the squad’s flaws last year, and concludes she’d better apologize to the coach long before the first practice, those who expediently distance themselves from their own partisan team when they’re candidates have only a short time after winning to decide whether to make amends or remain on the outside. And so someone such as Joni Ernst of Iowa’s biggest decision during orientation will be whether to declare her support for Mitch McConnell as he prepares to run unopposed Thursday for Senate majority leader.
While freshman days include plenty of policy briefings segregated by party and grounded in Democratic or GOP orthodoxy, and while legions of job-seekers and lobbyists will be ready to make their none-too-subtle introductions at a moment’s notice, freshman week is about as disconnected from partisan hardball as life ever gets in Washington. Just like those who have just started college, it will behoove all the congressional newcomers to make the most of the moment — and to realize they will never get a second chance to leave a first impression.
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