Loneliest class in Congress wonders how to make friends

COVID-19, Capitol storming poisoned these crucial early months for freshmen

Freshman members of the House Republican Conference pose at the Capitol on Jan. 4, along with the minority leader. It’s been a strange few weeks for new lawmakers in Congress, to say the least.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Freshman members of the House Republican Conference pose at the Capitol on Jan. 4, along with the minority leader. It’s been a strange few weeks for new lawmakers in Congress, to say the least. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 10, 2021 at 6:00am

First impressions matter, as freshman Rep. Sara Jacobs understands after meeting some of her colleagues while ducking under a seat and grabbing an evacuation hood.

“When I was trapped in the gallery on Jan. 6, that was the first time I met some of those members I was with,” said Jacobs, a Democrat from California.

Another axiom that rings true on Capitol Hill: It’s all about who you know, even right now. This might just be the loneliest Congress in memory, but Congress is still about relationships. As roughly five dozen new lawmakers enter their second month in office and try to settle into the House, they’re asking what it means for the future. 

“I don’t want to be too pessimistic, but it can have lasting consequences,” said Rep. Ritchie Torres, a Democrat from New York. “Some of the lasting relationships you form are in the earliest days of your congressional career.”

Saying “hello” in the aftermath of screams and gunfire wasn’t ideal, and finding allies over video chat can get pretty awkward. Untangling the mess of their early months in Congress will be an ongoing task for freshman lawmakers, as they figure out what’s new because of the pandemic, what’s new because of the insurrection, and what’s not new at all but just part of the same old partisan doomsaying in Washington.

Faces and names

Asked what their first few weeks in Congress were like, many freshmen echoed the thoughts of schoolkids everywhere, saying right now it’s hard to make friends. They kept busy, but felt relatively alone.

“I haven’t had much of an opportunity to interact with anyone,” said Rep. Nikema Williams, a Georgia Democrat. “Usually that happens on the floor and in the cloakrooms and in the Speaker’s Lobby, and all of that is off-limits because of COVID.”

“We have tried to make up for that through phone calls, Zoom meetings” among Democrats, said Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, another Georgian. 

Putting names to faces can be a struggle, said Rep. Blake D. Moore, a Utah Republican. “Another freshman Republican on Armed Services said, ‘Blake, I haven’t met some of the guys I’ve seen you talk to. Will you introduce me?’”

“That’s someone who is maybe more introverted and people have called much worse than friendly,” he added.

Moore chalks it up to fewer chances to mingle, starting with an orientation week that was stripped back to fit the pandemic. The mood was subdued, despite a warm welcome for Republicans from the minority whip. “[Steve] Scalise held an awesome rooftop party, but we didn’t get as much of that as we would have liked from the get-go.” 

Some of it could be lifted straight out of a college freshman’s diary, with the pandemic disrupting the usual connections that make a new start so exciting. Yet even when lawmakers aren’t talking about what happened on Jan. 6, it looms over everything.

If the pandemic has literally forced members apart, the insurrection opened an even larger rift. Freshmen described dropping into Congress just in time to see it happen on that January day, when a frenzied mob of Donald Trump supporters stormed the Capitol and 147 Republicans in the House and Senate objected to certifying the electoral vote count.  

In interviews this month, it wasn’t always clear which of the two historic events was responsible for spoiling which parts of the freshman experience. But new lawmakers on the Democratic side repeated calls for accountability and stressed that they saw Jan. 6 as an instant turning point in their fledgling congressional careers. Republicans need to be held responsible for the role they played in undermining the public’s faith in the electoral system, they said.

“That is a red line for me,” Torres said. “If you have no regard for democracy, no regard for the peaceful transfer of power upon which democracy depends, then there is no common ground upon which to collaborate.”

The question of how to make friends across the aisle becomes whether to even try.

For Williams, the decision is one she’ll make on a case-by-case basis. “I’ve taken the posture that I can work with anyone as long as our disagreements are not rooted in the denial of my humanity,” the Georgia Democrat said. “And some people, based on their rhetoric and past actions, don’t believe that me as a Black woman should be serving in this body.”

Jacobs said she’d like to see the House Ethics Committee determine who should be held to account and would support different levels of punishment based on the severity of the actions. Still, she would cast that net broadly. “I think anyone who broadcast the big lie that the election was fraudulent contributed to the violence,” she said.

Pointing to her work at the State Department and United Nations on post-coup transitions in sub-Saharan Africa, Jacobs warned that political leaders shouldn’t be let off the hook.

“When you look at instances of political violence around the world, if the first incident isn’t met with high accountability, you’re going to get future incidents,” Jacobs said.

‘Take my ball and go home’

That Jacobs is already flashing back to her past work on political violence is one clue that her short time in office hasn’t exactly been normal.

Each successive Congress likes to think its problems are unique, but this class has a pretty convincing claim to it, said Rep. Josh Gottheimer. A third-term Democrat who co-chairs the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, he’s invested in the idea of working across the aisle and has heard plenty of worry over the years that Congress is becoming a colder, lonelier and more intractable place. These days, freshmen have it rough. “It’s definitely harder,” he said.

Yet as some Democratic freshmen wonder if they’ll spend the rest of their careers dealing with the fallout of Jan. 6, many Republicans are blaming garden-variety partisanship growing out of control.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to say, ‘If you don’t vote how I vote, I won’t work with you? I’ll take my ball and go home,’” said Michigan Rep. Lisa McClain, an electoral vote count objector.

When pressed on the distinction Democrats have made between mundane policy disagreements and fundamental tenets of democracy, McClain said that’s precisely the point. “In a democracy, you don’t get to pick and choose who you get to work with.”

“If you really care about democracy, it’s about working with everybody — or at least I thought it was,” she added.

Complaining that the majority is too partisan — particularly in light of President Joe Biden’s calls for unity — is one of the few plays currently available to freshman Republicans. If voters start to agree with that charge, it could cost Democrats in battleground districts.

Rep. Kat Cammack of Florida said she’s watched other women back away when they realize who she is. “I’ve had a few interesting interactions with my Democratic colleagues, particularly with some of the women, who were very friendly at first but once they recognized that I was a Republican, they kind of gave me a bit of a cold shoulder,” said Cammack, who voted against certifying the electoral vote count.

Rep. Byron Donalds, another objector from Florida, blamed the pandemic for much of the “excessive partisanship” during his first few weeks. “It’s really easy to be tough on Twitter,” he said. “It’s easy to say all those things if there’s no opportunity to engage that person.”

“From what I’ve seen so far, the members don’t engage across party lines, which is unfortunate,” Donalds said.

The Republican freshmen have a group text to chat about things, as do the Democrats. Even in committees, many of the emails and meetings are segregated by party. 

Despite the hurdles, some freshmen from both parties said they want to work across the aisle. Many Democrats name-checked Moore as someone they could see themselves co-sponsoring legislation with, and a bunch of the GOP freshmen spoke highly of Jacobs.

But until there’s some accountability for Jan. 6, Democrats like Jacobs say they’ll continue to shun Republicans who objected to the electoral count vote. They need to take it seriously and make amends, said Rep. Jake Auchincloss, a freshman Democrat from Massachusetts.

“I think apologies go a long way,” he said.

So far, those are slow in coming. Meanwhile, some Democrats see a silver lining. At least surviving back-to-back historic events has brought intraparty strength to the newest batch of lawmakers in Congress. “At the beginning of the session there were all these articles about infighting,” said Rep. Deborah K. Ross of North Carolina. “I’m here to tell you, there’s a lot of love going around the Democratic caucus.”