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The Week When the Capitol Is Like College in the Fall

Freshman orientation: a time of wide-eyed wonder, bureaucracy and savvy positioning

Rep.-elect Ruben Kihuen, second from left, kisses his mother as he delivers his victory speech flanked by his family and supporters at the Aria Resort & Carino in Las Vegas on Election Day, Nov. 8. Kihuen joins the other incoming freshman for orientation on the Hill this week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Rep.-elect Ruben Kihuen, second from left, kisses his mother as he delivers his victory speech flanked by his family and supporters at the Aria Resort & Carino in Las Vegas on Election Day, Nov. 8. Kihuen joins the other incoming freshman for orientation on the Hill this week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

While the capital remains convulsed over Donald Trump’s astonishing election and transfixed by every aspect of his presidential transition, the second-most important transfer of federal power will have a straightforward start this week.

The freshly elected members of the House arrive on Capitol Hill on Monday to begin an elaborately choreographed and photographed orientation, while incoming senators are expected Tuesday to begin an indoctrination that’s both less formal and more secretive.

For the newcomers to the House, many comparisons to their freshman days at college will be unavoidable. For the new senators, the experience may be more like what happens after admission to a fraternity.

Sometimes, it’s high school and sometimes, university, but parallels between life in Congress and the scholastic experience are unmistakable.

The newcomers will learn soon enough next year, for example, that any urge to procrastinate they fought in their student years is baked in to the modern legislative system. So even the most ardent and industrious members — the type who turned all their term papers long before spring break — won’t be able to avoid a few near-all-nighters before enacting “must pass” short-term policy extensions that are so often prerequisites for permission to get back home to their states or districts.

For the incoming Class of 2016, however, the inevitable frustrations over policymaking at the last minute are as far over the horizon as second semester exams.

Instead, they’ll descend on a Capitol complex that remains metaphorically cloaked in rich green foliage and golden light, evoking a late summer when the campus community gets its annual infusion of hope over experience.

Politically, of course, they have just won admission to the most prestigious institution in the land, and so whatever excitement and wide-eyed naivete they exhibit outwardly will be paired with an intensely competitive focus just below the surface.

Since they’re all savvy enough to have won their new spots, they’re all presumably smart enough to comprehend how quickly and dramatically their lives are about to change.

A slow pace

The House members-elect — 26 majority Republicans and 27 minority Democrats — are facing a relatively slow pace for their indoctrination into the formalities and folkways of life in Congress, which after Wednesday will be paused to resume after Thanksgiving.

While the lame-duck session convenes for the incumbents, akin to classes restarting for the upperclassmen, Monday’s schedule for the newbies is devoted to “move-in day,” when they’ll claim temporary quarters at the understated Capitol Hill Hotel, a block from the Cannon Building. Posing for the iconic class photograph and attending a festive lunch with the bipartisan leadership are all that’s required on Tuesday. Briefings organized by the House Administration Committee begin Wednesday, continue Nov. 29 and Nov. 30 and are followed the next day by orientation’s climactic event — a lottery akin to a collegiate “room draw” where offices (the suites that none of the returning incumbents claimed) are parceled out.

Those officially sanctioned sessions, truth be told, will probably prove to be the least interesting (albeit essential) lessons of the coming weeks. They are about such matters as office budgets, personnel regulations, travel limits, ethical guidelines and the protective service of the Capitol Police — the functional equivalent of learning how the meal plans operate, when the IT help desk is open, what the “blue light” security kiosks are about and what services the registrar’s office provides.

On Tuesday, six of the incoming senators, with larger staffs to rely on and broader constituencies to address, will spend less time listening to aides describe the bureaucratic necessities of campus life and instead hear their senior colleagues talk about the history, culture, customs, unwritten rules and procedural arcana that help give their side of the Capitol its elite and more fraternal panache.

“The House orientation was, you go in there and they teach you on policy, on procedure, and this is what you need to do to set up the office, and that kind of thing,” explains Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican who went through that program in 2010 and Senate orientation one election ago. “The Senate was doing, like, trust falls. It really was. It was like, you’d sit in the room and you’d talk about what it was like to be in the Senate.”

On top of their freshmen-only obligations, newcomers also get to attend their party caucuses to organize for the 115th Congress and elect their leadership teams. The House Republicans are doing so Tuesday and the House Democrats on Thursday. Senators of both parties will probably hold their meetings Tuesday.

The quartet of House and Senate campaign committees are expected to entertain their prize pupils. But, in a break from past years, the first-time victors won’t be pressed to tuck into their most dreaded congressional homework assignments — retiring their campaign debts and starting to fundraise for the cycle ahead — before they actually start their new jobs.

New relationships

Much more useful than the formal sessions, for college freshmen and congressional freshmen alike, will be the interpersonal connections classmates start making with one another and their more senior peers — all the while making subtle, even subconscious, maneuvers for their own early social (or political) advancement.  

Theoretically, they’ll arrive for convocation (or swearing-in day Jan. 3) on equal footing. Those taken off the waiting list during the summer (think an underfunded winner of a close upset) have the same standing as those admitted early decision (members whose paths to Congress were assured with primary victories for open, lopsidedly partisan seats).

Political professionals that most of them are, the Hill newcomers started taking the measure of one another right after delivering their victory speeches — watching their campaign advertisements and scouring their fundraising reports online, just as high school graduates start trolling social media for information on their future roommates.  

But in Congress, as at college, the real social stratification, and the political and intellectual culling of the herd, really don’t get started until the new class actually assembles.

The first face-to-face encounters still offer the best insights for taking the measure of potential collaborators, competitors and after-hours running buddies — and a chance for those with the most outsized reputations to double-down on them or back away.  

So it will be worth watching myriad storylines develop during this period of bonding, among them:

Will Charlie Crist, a former Republican governor of Florida with a national following, still affect a Big-Man-on-Campus aura despite making his comeback as only a congressman in the Democratic minority?

Will someone like Mike Gallagher, a new GOP member from Wisconsin without any prior elected experience, nonetheless be able to leverage his experience as a Senate Foreign Relations staffer into credibility among his new colleagues?

Which of the four new women in the Senate will seek attention from colleagues looking to identify the one who might succeed Hillary Clinton as the principal female face of the Democratic Party?

Will the five Democratic and five Republican newcomers to the House from Florida, better than one-third of the delegation, band together with a promise to advance causes particularly important to the nation’s third most-populous state? Or will they splinter into partisan factions with several of them putting dreams for statewide prominence first?

The House GOP freshman roster will grow by two in December, after runoff elections for a pair of open House seats in deep-red sections of Louisiana. And there’s an outside chance two super-close contests in California could go to newcomers instead of the incumbents, Republican Darrell Issa and Democrat Ami Bera.

But no matter what, one of the biggest “change elections” in modern times at the presidential level will yield the smallest House class since the paltry 40 of 2004.

And, at just seven, the Senate is welcoming its thinnest collection of newbies since 1990, when just four seats changed hands. The six fresh faces being oriented this week will almost certainly be joined by Louisiana Treasurer John Kennedy, the prohibitive favorite to hold the state’s open seat for the Republicans in a Dec. 10 runoff. 

Keeping the collegiate metaphor alive, three of the new senators are something like “local kids” — Democrats Tammy Duckworth and Chris Van Hollen and Republican Todd Young, having won the right to move over to the Senate’s elaborately tiled floors after years plying the House’s workaday hallways.

The “faculty kids” might be the two new House members taking seats once held by parents who went on to national fame: Democrat Jimmy Panetta of California, whose father was CIA director and Defense secretary, and Republican Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a daughter of the previous vice president.

And then there are the kids coming back to campus two years after being forced to withdraw. Democrats Colleen Hanabusa of Hawaii, Brad Schneider of Illinois and Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire are all coming back to House seats they had in 2013-14.

Bridget Bowman contributed reporting.

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