New Members Getting Schooled in D.C.

Posted November 18, 2008 at 6:48pm

Incoming Members of Congress are being inundated with information this week as they attend a crash course in how to do their jobs.

The weeklong orientation features such highlights as a candlelit tour of the Capitol and a dinner in Statuary Hall — sandwiched between party meetings and lectures on how to be a Member of Congress.

“I thought it was very informative,” Rep.-elect Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) said, adding that he received a lot of information in one sitting.

On Monday morning, Representatives-elect gathered in the Cannon House Office Building Caucus Room for an all-day session led by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), the second-ranking Democrat on the House Administration Committee. While munching on muffins and fresh fruit, incoming Members were addressed by House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood, who told the incoming class the ins and outs of House safety procedures.

He warned the new Members to wear their pins only at official functions, lest they become targets for activists and crime. And he advised them to use the tunnels that run below the Capitol when they are called to the floor to vote, in order to avoid protests and other obstacles on Independence Avenue.

The most entertaining part of the morning, according to Rep.-elect Dina Titus (D-Nev.), was when a woman speaking on the security and emergency preparedness panel demonstrated how to use an emergency hood. The class laughed as she slipped the hood, which resembles a plastic bag with a fan attached to it, onto her head.

In addition to safety information, Lofgren gave the soon-to-be Members advice on how to save face. Never write anything in an e-mail that you wouldn’t want to see running on the front page of your local newspaper, she told the incoming class. Rep. Christopher Murphy (D-Conn.), who spoke to the group with Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as a part of a lunch seminar titled “If I Knew Then What I Know Now,” echoed this warning.

“This town has a journalism [industry] based on gotcha journalism,” he said.

The Congressmen, both of whom are entering their second terms, also warned the Members to make time for themselves to decompress. “You have to control your schedule because it will take control of you,” McCarthy told the class. Murphy added that a good scheduler is the key to success in Washington, D.C.

The bipartisan panel drew several laughs from the incoming freshmen as the Congressmen shared their early mishaps and tales of 4 p.m. pickup basketball games in the House gym. At the conclusion of their lecture, many Members of the new class rushed over to shake McCarthy’s and Murphy’s hands and thank them.

But orientation wasn’t all fun and games. As the hours dragged on, some soon-to-be-Members seemed to grow weary from the day. Toward the end of Monday’s session, several Members-elect were seen toying with their BlackBerrys, doodling or reading the newspaper, while one was spotted snoozing in the back of the room.

The newly elected Congressmen were on time and buzzing with excitement on Monday morning, but they slowly trickled into Tuesday’s session, with some entering the Caucus Room after the presentation on House ethics had begun.

During the conduct and standards panel, the group was warned about the dangers of getting caught in an ethical snafu. Carol Dixon, counsel to the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, led the group through a PowerPoint presentation outlining the do’s and don’ts of life as a Congressman.

“If you make mistakes, your name is going to be in the paper, and it’s a bad thing,” the sage Lofgren warned the group. “If you’re an honorable person, it’s easy to live within these rules.”

This panel solicited more questions than any other as Representatives-elect fretted over their roles on the boards of charitable foundations, how to appropriately spend campaign funds and business ventures that used the Members’ names to generate revenue.

Kenyen Brown, chief counsel to the ethics committee, warned incoming Members that there are penalties for ethics violations that range from “expulsion at the highest end or a private letter.” Though Members-elect are not required to follow ethics rules until they are sworn in on Jan. 6, Brown advised the new Members to be mindful of the spirit of the rules.

“Keep in mind the bribery statute probably still applies,” he joked. “So it’s not the time to take bribes.”

Throughout the panel, Members-elect were given information on how to get around the pesky rules. For instance, if a Member is offered a free ticket to an event, he or she is not able to ask for a second free ticket to bring a spouse or staffer because this violates the rules on solicitation. It is, however, permissible for a Member to offer to buy a second ticket and then accept it as a gift if the organization offers to waive the fee.

At the conclusion of the ethics panel, House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.), who was conspicuously absent from Monday’s orientation sessions because he was back home in Philadelphia, made a very brief appearance to address his new colleagues.

“This orientation is extremely important,” he said. “I would know better than anyone because I was elected in a special election. We were a mutt class. We had no class and there was no orientation.”