Members-Elect Learn Facts of Congressional Life

Posted November 12, 2004 at 5:38pm

The four-dozen newly elected Members of the House and Senate will descend on Capitol Hill this week to participate in the biennial orientation process.

In the House, orientation sessions will focus primarily on the role of families in Congressional life as well as security-related issues, while Senate organizers said their revamped program will push the importance of bipartisan relations in the chamber.

“We have them captive and they’ll be learning every single thing they have to learn about legal liabilities and setting up their offices,” said House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), whose panel administers the chamber’s two-day bipartisan orientation program. “I’m sure they want to get off on the right foot.”

The official House program, scheduled to begin Sunday and followed by party events later in the week, guides Representatives-elect through the basics of running a Congressional office and includes tutorials on the office lottery system, Member pay and benefits, using official resources, communicating with constituents, security in handling mail, as well as a new program on digital mail. It also includes a session on the chamber’s history.

Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), ranking member on the House Administration panel, noted the initial two days of the program are heavy with factual information “but, they’re important facts,” he said.

In addition to the House Administration sessions, the Monday agenda for Members-elect lists a class photo, a tour of the Capitol and a reception hosted by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

New Members will also spend time today with House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood and Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer, who will review Congressional security issues.

That session will include a basic review of security procedures outlined in a handbook provided by the Capitol Police, said Sgt. Contricia Sellers-Ford, a department spokeswoman.

Senate lawmakers will receive a similar briefing Tuesday, led by Gainer and Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle, that will also focus on continuity of operations during emergency situations.

“It’s the same security orientation awareness briefing” provided to Capitol Hill offices at the request of lawmakers, said Ford. The session is intended to acquaint Members-elect with the department and remind them of common-sense safety measures, such as remaining aware of their surroundings when traveling to and from the office.

The House program will also include a Wednesday session for new Congressional aides, co-sponsored by the Congressional Management Foundation and the House Administrative Assistants Association.

The workshop, “Setting Up Your Congressional Office,” will focus on the November-to-January transition period and what CMF management consultant Patty Sheetz describes as “just-in-time training.”

“It’s needs-based,” said Sheetz, who added that much of the program is based on interviews with former freshman chiefs of staff.

The session, taught by veteran Hill aides, will provide information on office basics like creating a first-year budget, as well as offering a list of “survival skills.” Fox News commentator Tony Snow is scheduled to speak and former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.) is scheduled to give the session’s closing remarks.

Freshman lawmakers, who will not be officially sworn in until January, are scheduled to break apart to attend party activities mid-week.

Republicans will attend a GOP Policy Committee breakfast Tuesday and may elect regional representatives to the Steering Committee then. During the same time, Democrats are scheduled to attend a breakfast sponsored by Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.). House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) will host both a luncheon and dinner Tuesday to introduce new Members to the Democratic Caucus.

Both the Republican Conference and Democratic Caucus are expected to meet Wednesday, with the latter slated to elect leadership for the 109th Congress. On Thursday, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee will run separate briefings for Members-elect.

House officials will conduct the office lottery all week, and freshman lawmakers will make their selections Friday morning. (See the “Members’ Guide to D.C.” special section for more information.)

In the Senate, lawmakers planned to welcome their nine new colleagues with a four-day orientation that differs significantly from previous years’ agendas.

The program, scheduled to begin Sunday afternoon, will put a strong emphasis on bipartisan relations in the chamber, with nearly two dozen Senators serving as “faculty” for the lawmakers-elect and their spouses.

“The Senate operates at its best when it has consensus,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who along with Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) led an effort to overhaul the chamber’s orientation program. “Much of that starts with personal relationships and understanding each other’s point of view.”

The steering committee, which also includes Sens. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and George Voinovich (R-Ohio), modeled the new program on the National Governors Association’s bipartisan “school” for newly elected state leaders.

“We spend three days together sharing as grizzled veterans some of what we did wrong in putting together our transition team, recruiting our cabinet, filling senior positions, developing relationships with our legislators,” explained Carper, who served as Delaware’s governor from 1993 to 2001. “We spend similar time on personal matters: how to balance work and private lives.”

The session will also stress the history of the Senate as an institution, with Senators-elect scheduled to begin Sunday with a presentation from Senate Historian Richard Baker and Curator Diane Skvarla in the Old Senate Chamber.

“We’re not arms of our party organizations, we’re Members of the U.S. Senate, and we need to understand it as an institution,” said Alexander, Tennessee’s governor from 1979 to 1987. “It helps to understand that it’s not the House of Representatives, it’s not a governor’s office. It’s a completely unique and different organization.”

Despite Republican gains that will solidify the party’s control of the Senate, Alexander said the bipartisan lessons are still relevant.

“The magic numbers in the Senate are still 60 and 100, even though we have a majority of 55,” Alexander said. “An individual Senator can block almost anything. The only thing that creates results in the Senate is some degree of consensus.”

Part of that effort will take the form of mentors assigned to each new Senator.

“We’re going to make sure every newly elected Senator gets two mentors, one Democrat and one Republican,” Carper said.