‘Fire Hose’ Training for New Members

Posted November 14, 2008 at 5:58pm

Being a Member isn’t all about party politics and floor speeches — it’s also about buying a printer, setting a budget, sifting through constituent e-mail and finding your way through the labyrinth of the Capitol.

This week, Members-elect will attempt to absorb it all in a marathon of lectures, dinners and caucus meetings.

“There is so much to absorb for them that week, and we just expose them to so much new information, some folks on our transition staff say it’s like we hook them up to a fire hose,” said Jeff Ventura, the spokesman for the House Chief Administrative Officer.

By the time they leave on Friday, the soon-to-be Members will not only have a pile of how-to guides on managing a Congressional office, they will have participated in the first major decision of the 111th Congress: the election of leadership.

With every Member-elect voting, those ballots can get contentious.

In 2002, then-Rep. Bob Menendez (N.J.) won his bid for chairman of the House Democratic Caucus by just one vote — a vote by a possible Member-elect who ended up losing his then-uncalled election. However, House leaders haven’t indicated whether those in contested elections will vote this year.

This year, like every election season, those House Members whose races are still up for grabs will attend orientation.

They’ll only deviate from the pack in Friday’s infamous housing lottery, where Members vie for the best offices. The Clerk of the House will reserve an office for whoever eventually wins the seat unless the contested election includes an incumbent, who would take part in the lottery.

Still, much of the week is dedicated to the details: Does the Member want to buy new office equipment? Where will they set up their district offices? What are the rules for hiring staff?

In the House, new Members begin the week with a long day of orientation sessions that cover everything from “security and emergency preparedness” to “leasing and outfitting your district office.”

The Senate will host a lecture by Senate Historian Richard Baker on the history of the Senate, with a session on Senate procedures set for Tuesday.

One staffer for each Member-elect will attend another orientation hosted by the Congressional Management Foundation and the Chiefs of Staff Association.

Wednesday’s daylong session will include panels on four topics: How to staff an office, how to manage the transition period, how to handle constituent mail and how to manage the first-year budget.

Every chief of staff essentially has to create an office from the ground up, said Tim Hysom, spokesman for the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes a more effective Congress.

But as they try to build an office, those staffers won’t yet have permanent office space.

So the CAO office sets up a “New Member Center,” where each Member-elect gets a cubicle in the Rayburn House Office Building basement with a laptop and some office supplies.

“Getting a Congressional office off the ground is a really unique experience,” Hysom said. “We try to equip them with a lot of the information that they’ll need to make key decisions.”