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Orientation and Office Space Set the Tone for the First Term of a Member

The day after Election Day is typically a quiet one on Capitol Hill. Most members are celebrating victory or analyzing defeat. But for the House Administration Committee, Nov. 7 was among the busiest days of the year.

Staffers on the committee combed through contact information they’d compiled for the 84 members-elect (and those whose races were too close to call) and invited each freshman to New Member Orientation, scheduled for one week later.

Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Texas, learned the news via email. He described the orientation invitation as “a completely surreal and truly humbling experience.” He connected with Obama for America Arizona State Director Cesar Blanco, who agreed to come on board and be his chief of staff, and the two of them booked flights to Washington.

Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., didn’t know until the Friday after the election that he’d officially won, but the orientation invitation was extended and he booked a flight to D.C. with campaign manager Kyle Layman in tow.

Gallego, Ruiz, Blanco and Layman were four of the roughly 150 members-elect and staffers who attended New Member Orientation, a five-day “whirlwind,” as Ruiz described it. It is designed to provide Hill newbies with everything from basic tips on legislative process to an overview on protocol and committee assignments to room selection and member IDs.

“It’s basically starting a small business from the ground up,” said Blanco, who previously served as a chief of staff on Capitol Hill for Texas Democrats Ciro D. Rodriguez and Sheila Jackson Lee. “The fun part is putting a team together. We start with the member’s vision of how the member wants to represent the district, and go from there.”

In previous years, orientation was done all at once. This year it was split into two sessions, with a three-day program Nov. 14-16 and a follow-up program Nov. 28-30.

Office Space

The apex of New Member Orientation is the room draw.

This dramatic lottery is coordinated by the Architect of the Capitol and took place Nov. 20 in 2359 Rayburn. Members-elect or their designees went in alphabetical order to draw numbered metal buttons — 1 through 84 this year— to determine the order for choosing an office. A low number gave the member-elect far more options to choose from, enabling them to avoid the oft-dreaded fifth-floor Cannon space.

“The best leadership advice for a new chief of staff is not to be the one drawing the number,” said Chris McCannell, director of government relations at APCO Worldwide and a former chief of staff to New York Democrats Joseph Crowley and Michael E. McMahon when each was a freshman. “Both times we had our office manager do it.”

Gallego was one of the luckier members: He drew No. 3 and selected Cannon 431. But not all members of Congress view their space in the House office buildings as an upgrade. “Pete [Gallego] had a nice office in the state capitol because he was state leadership, so transitioning to a smaller office will be interesting,” Blanco said.

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