In April, just a few days after being sworn in following his stunning special election win in Pennsylvania, Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb strode into the Capitol, hand clutching a coffee cup, as he made his way to the House floor for a vote. But before he could make it inside, a guard abruptly stopped him. Beverages in the chamber, she explained, are strictly forbidden. “You can go through the cloakroom,” she helpfully suggested. Lamb gave a blank stare. “It’s around the corner,” she said, pointing down the hall.
The first few days and weeks for new lawmakers can prove a disorienting adjustment, especially for winners of special elections.
This Congress has seen nine such members take office, and when you add in the one more to come in the next two months, it would be the most since the 12 midcycle members in the 110th Congress (2007-09). The number has gone up and down over the past two decades.
In the current Congress, the newcomers started arriving in April 2017, when Kansas Republican Ron Estes won a special election to replace Mike Pompeo, who became CIA director. The last election on the docket will feature a battle to replace Republican Pat Tiberi after he resigned in January to lead the Ohio Business Roundtable.
Those who’ve been through a midcycle election say adjusting to life on Capitol Hill is a whirlwind and that it takes as long as six months to get their sea legs.
“It’s been thrilling. It’s been challenging. It’s been rewarding. And some days, you feel like you’ve got a tiger by the tail,” said John Curtis, the Utah Republican who replaced Jason Chaffetz in November.
New representatives take different approaches. Some take it all in, remain patient and bide their time; others get involved in legislation and ask lots of questions right away.
California Democrat Jimmy Gomez, who represents part of Los Angeles and was elected in a June 2017 special to replace Democrat Xavier Becerra, who became California’s attorney general, did the latter. In his first three days he spoke on the floor, went to a committee markup and offered an amendment at the Rules Committee, he said. The biggest challenge was trying to set up an office at the same time he was grappling with legislation and votes.
New members often have to learn about the committee process. Some, like Massachusetts Democrat Katherine M. Clark, went from leading a state legislative committee to sitting on a lower level of the dais. She had to decide what issue areas she was interested in and how they fit with the panels’ top members.
California Democrat Judy Chu, who started in July 2009 after her predecessor Hilda L. Solis was named Labor secretary, was assigned to the Education and the Workforce Committee. It was immersed in a marathon overnight markup on the 2010 health law, and she spent her first night as a representative trying to catch the occasional wink as the markup dragged on.
Shortly after he took office, New York’s Gregory W. Meeks had to vote on granting most-favored-nation trading status to China, a matter of significant controversy for congressional Democrats, who mostly opposed it, while their president, Bill Clinton, pushed for approval.
Meeks remembers a call from Clinton, and then a trip to China with then-Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman aimed at convincing him to vote aye. He did.
In addition to the legislative learning curve, new members have to adjust their commuting routines, going from short daily trips to spending all week in Washington and then having flights or long car rides back to their districts. Those without the financial means to maintain homes in Washington and in their districts struggle to adjust to their new lives like a college student moving off campus. Some sleep in their offices or cram into group houses or small apartments.
Louisiana Republican Steve Scalise, now the House majority whip, said when he was first elected in May 2008, he had four days to resign from the state Senate and set up an office in Washington before he was sworn in.
“I remember asking my mentor Jim McCrery how to find a place to live.” Scalise said. “For the first few days, I was staying with one of my college roommates who lives in D.C., and Jim tells me that John Shimkus had an opening at his townhouse. I said, ‘Who’s John Shimkus?’”
Providing constituent service is another responsibility of the job that voters expect their new members will give keen attention to from the get-go. Gomez said one of his best moves was to keep one of his predecessor’s longtime caseworkers, who had a handle on how it’s done.
Several special election veterans point out that a disadvantage in starting midcycle is they were not part of a class. It’s harder, in their view, to build relationships with colleagues starting midcycle since they aren’t going through the same adjustment at the same time.
Those who arrive on Capitol Hill in the middle of a Congress also complain that in addition to a shorter adjustment period they don’t get the same in-depth training as members elected in November. While most new representatives get a more formalized orientation with hours of classes, those entering at other times get a crash course. It’s like “drinking from a fire hose,” said Virginia Republican Rob Wittman, who arrived in December 2007 after winning a special election to replace Jo Ann Davis, who died of breast cancer.
Simply finding one’s way around the Capitol complex can be an embarrassing challenge. Democrat Ted Deutch, who won an April 2010 special election to represent a South Florida district, tells of wandering into the Republican cloakroom because he was looking for some food only to find he wasn’t welcome there. “It was a bit of a shocker to know that in the U.S. House that Democrats and Republicans couldn’t even stand next to each other and have a bowl of soup,” he said.
Other times it’s not how to get around but a lack of information that can be the problem. Meeks, who came to Congress in February 1998 after his predecessor Floyd H. Flake, a pastor, decided to go back to Queens and lead his huge church, tells the story of how, early on, he missed the weekly Democratic Caucus meetings. Eventually, Charles B. Rangel, then the dean of the New York delegation, asked why he wasn’t showing up. Meeks had to admit to Rangel that he had no idea they existed.
There are advantages to a midcycle entry.
Special election winners don’t have to jockey for panel assignments — they get what’s available — and they usually get the office space of their predecessor.
Clark took over for a senior member, Edward J. Markey, who left for the Senate after 19 full terms in the House in 2013, replacing John Kerry, who’d become secretary of State. Markey had a beautiful office in Rayburn with a view of the Capitol.
But reality hit the following Congress when Clark had to give up the prime digs and move to the seventh floor of the Longworth House Office Building because she lacked seniority.
Still, learning one’s place can have its rewards, said New York Democrat José E. Serrano, who represents the Bronx and was elected in March 1990 after Democrat Robert Garcia resigned following a conviction for defense contract extortion. His advice is simple: “When you realize there are members who have been around 20, 25, 30 years, there’s a reason for that. You should find out what the reason is.”
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