An Old Hand in a Class of Upstarts
He rocked back in his plastic cafeteria chair, hands clasped behind his head, wearing the comfortable smile of a man who has been here before.
The Representative-elect is a freshman only in the technical sense of the word. Yes, Charlie Bass spent the previous week trudging through freshman orientation, and most of his Friday morning stuck at the freshman class photo. But the soon-to-be New Hampshire Congressman holds a distinction.
It’s not just that he served in Congress before. There are five former Members among the 96 incoming House freshmen. But Bass is one of just two in this giant freshman class — the other being Ohio’s Steve Chabot — to have first been elected in the 1994 Republican revolution and again in the conservative takeover of 2010.
“Two of us were so-called majority-makers twice,” said a relaxed Bass, lounging in the corner of the Rayburn cafeteria late last week, his new chief of staff at his side. “I don’t care about being a Congressman. I’ve done that. I ran because I think I can make a real contribution in a relatively short period of time to change America.”
Much has changed since his first freshman experience.
There were no BlackBerrys in 1994, Bass said, glancing at the government-issued smart phone on the table in front of him. During his first freshman orientation — a production hastily slapped together 16 years ago when few people expected the flood of freshmen — he borrowed a cell phone from then-Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.) to make calls.
“A lot of the people there were surprised to be there, and, quite honestly, utterly ill-prepared. And orientation was nowhere near as complete and carefully managed as it is now,” said Bass, who was a 43-year-old state lawmaker in his first year on Capitol Hill. He now returns at 58 with 12 years of House experience. “I think a lot of new Members got off to a weak start, because of the mechanics of not knowing what to do. And there’s just so much support now in how to hire people, how to do things right, so you don’t make any mistakes in the first month.”
Bass admitted that he skipped a few orientation sessions this time around — the tour of the House floor, for example. But he sat through tutorials on ethics, House rules and administration.
“I didn’t know what to expect in orientation. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to learn as much as I have. I either forgot or it changed,” he said, adding that he is working to help guide true freshmen through what can be an overwhelming transition. “New Members come up to me. … They don’t want to admit there are things that they don’t know.”
Bass’ experience offers practical advantages. He wasn’t forced to wait with the other freshmen for Friday afternoon’s lottery to select his office (the Rayburn suite of ousted Democratic Rep. Brian Baird of Washington). He is also quietly confident about being assigned to the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, his home until Rep. Paul Hodes and the 2006 Democratic wave briefly knocked him out of Congress.
Environmental issues, including limiting carbon emissions, are among his priorities, Bass said. In the tradition of moderate New England Republicans, he previously sponsored a cap-and-trade effort, but he blamed Democrats for recently pushing a bill that he said was too aggressive and largely destroyed the idea’s prospects in the 112th Congress.
“It’s very disappointing. Now the environmental debate has been set back, rather than moved forward,” he said. “And I believe we’re going to have to think of a new approach.”
Twelve years of federal legislative experience also give Bass perspective about the limitations on freshmen, who arrive expecting to make an immediate impact. “These people don’t want the status quo, they don’t want to abide by the old traditions. They don’t want to have to be seen and not heard and that kind of stuff,” Bass said.
But he also noted that most freshmen have already tempered their campaign trail rhetoric about repealing President Barack Obama’s signature health care overhaul. “I don’t think there’s a single freshman who thinks that total repeal is going to pass,” he said.
Looking at the big picture, Bass predicted that Democrats and Republicans are poised to improve their working relationship in the next Congress, despite the widespread belief that the political atmosphere is more toxic than it has ever been.
“Most of the Democrats in Congress now have served in the minority status. So I think that the ability of the House to work next year is going to be better than it was in early 1995” when House Democrats were still reeling from their ouster from power, he said.
In 1994, he said, the only group more surprised than the wave of new Republicans was the new Democratic minority.
“They were embittered and angry. They had been in charge for 40 years. They didn’t expect to lose control, and it created an absolutely poisonous atmosphere,” he said. “When [Georgia Republican and former Speaker Newt] Gingrich, who’s obviously a lot more declarative and aggressive than John Boehner in terms of his approach to leadership, made all these pronouncements, the Democrats felt more under siege.”
Having served through the rise and fall of House Republicans, Bass is hopeful that his colleagues learned from their mistakes. “The Conference needs to remember what this election was all about — not in January or February, but four years from now,” he said.
After gaining the majority in 1994, “Republicans really lost the memory of why they came to power,” he said, adding, “Maybe that’s part of what is wrong with this system. If you’re here very long, you tend to forget.”
Bass recalled an early 2006 meeting with then-Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). “I said that what we are up to now is not what our Conference was created for. You are now supporting an indicted person for Majority Leader. We have a committee chairman who tells the people of America to go stuff it because he wants to build a bridge in his state. We have three or four people that are going to jail. This is what people like me ran against.”
“That is the lesson we need to learn. And I don’t think John Boehner is going to forget that. I really don’t,” the battle-tested freshman said of the Ohio Republican and Speaker-designate shortly before leaving the Rayburn cafeteria.
With his office selected, Bass’ orientation was finished, and he returned to New Hampshire. Come January, he’ll be back on Capitol Hill with the rest of his class.