If you are a Republican Member of Congress elected in 2002, you probably received an invitation this week from Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) to take a freshman under your wing.
Carter is trying to organize a network of members from the class of 2002 — his class — to serve as mentors to the class of 2006. Each freshman would be assigned a third-term mentor, pairing up both the Member and the staff from each office to give the newcomers a regular place to go for advice on political, personal or policy questions.
Much has been made of the freshman Democrats, who delivered control of the House to their party and have received in return a significant level of care and attention from party leaders, who are hoping to defend the seats next year.
But Republicans also have a dozen new Members, and while it is harder for the minority party to legislate, the Republican Party is providing a web of assistance and opportunities for its new Members of Congress to establish a public profile.
Carter, the secretary of the House Republican Conference, said Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) has “allowed me to be a facilitator” for the freshman class, “to make sure they get the information and assistance that they need.” Carter holds regular meetings with the freshmen, provides background on policy issues and cooked up the plan to assign each freshman a mentor from his own Congressional class.
Republicans also are creating opportunities for freshmen to take the lead on some key issues. For example, Rep. Gus Bilirakis — who took over the Florida Congressional seat vacated by his father, Mike — already has introduced nine bills dealing with veterans’ issues, enhancing benefits for wounded veterans, employers of reservists and former prisoners of war.
Bilirakis said he was asked by leadership Monday night to chair a veterans’ affairs task force for the Republican Policy Committee, and on Tuesday, Bilirakis and Reps. Vern Buchanan (another Florida GOP freshman) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) introduced a package of bills related to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal.
Bilirakis’ bill would create a national ombudsman to respond to health care complaints from injured service members, Buchanan’s bill would establish a tracking system for wounded soldiers so family members and others can track their case through the military medical system, and Shays’ bills would establish “navigators” to help wounded vets manage their medical care and create new standards for the “medical holdover” process in which the Walter Reed soldiers were trapped.
“No one has really approached me and said, ‘Gus we want to give you this or give you that because you are a freshman,’” Bilirakis said. “I served on the veterans committee in Tallahassee since its inception [during his tenure in the state Legislature]; I think that they know these issues are important to me,” he said.
One opportunity Bilirakis gets solely because of his freshman status is the weekly invitation from class president Rep. Bill Sali (R-Idaho) to dine with the other GOP freshmen every Wednesday.
Sali spokesman Wayne Hoffman said the Congressman organizes the weekly dinners and invites a guest speaker to each session to help provide new Members with background on key issues. Guests have included Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and White House National Economic Council Director Allan Hubbard, as well as ethics committee attorneys who provided a presentation on new Congressional ethics rules.
“There is a lot of activity taking place and a lot if interest in terms of the GOP freshmen learning the issues and being able to have an influence on some of these issues,” Hoffman said.
A Republican aide said the key to the freshman outreach program is keeping them focused on the 2008 election cycle, “taking advantage of every press opportunity [and] localizing their message back home.”
In some cases, Republican leadership helps provide the podium for that messaging. For example, freshman Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) was named to the House Republican Policy Committee, where, her spokeswoman said, “she’s working with her GOP colleagues to develop and implement new legislative ideas.” Out of her work with the policy committee, Bachmann became the lead sponsor of H.R. 636, a bill that would make medical care expenses tax-deductible. Thirty-seven Republicans signed on as original co-sponsors.
And the GOP freshmen seem to be learning the time-honored tradition of offering legislation tailored strictly to the district. Rep. Adrian Smith (Neb.) offered a resolution commending the University of Nebraska’s women’s volleyball team for winning the national championship, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) proposed naming a post office in Bakersfield after local boy and country music legend Buck Owens, and Michigan Rep. Tim Walberg introduced a measure to congratulate Michigan native Tony Dungy for coaching the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl victory.