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New Members of Congress Hit the Books in DC

It’s just like college, but with more catering

Newly elected members of the 116th Congress arrive in Washington today for new member orientation. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call) 
Newly elected members of the 116th Congress arrive in Washington today for new member orientation. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call) 

Freshly elected faces will descend on Washington on Tuesday for the start of their congressional orientation, including a new session on workplace rights on Capitol Hill. If past years are any indication, they’ll be eating tens of thousands of dollars of food.

Lunches, tours and briefings will pack the agenda, and winners from around the country will mix and mingle like freshmen on a college campus. It will be their first taste of life as a member of Congress, from interacting with media to forging relationships with their future colleagues.

The biennial tradition “is designed to assist members-elect with the mechanics of the official position,” such as setting up their offices, hiring staff and learning the rules, said House Administration Committee spokesperson Courtney Parella.

A new addition in 2018 is a training on workplace rights and responsibilities, including sexual harassment. Another session will be led by the director of the Office of Employee Advocacy. That office was created this year as the House attempted to tackle the problem of sexual harassment on Capitol Hill.

What about those tight races that haven’t been called yet? While both candidates in those cases are invited to orientation, it’s not yet clear who will be featured in Wednesday’s freshman class photo. Chris Collins’ Democratic challenger, Nate McMurray, is expected to be on hand as the upstate New York race awaits a final call. Eyes will be peeled for other candidates in tight races too, like Republican Young Kim in California’s 39th District or Maine Democrat Jared Golden.

Tuesday’s schedule is devoted to “move-in day,” when members will claim rooms in a Navy Yard hotel, a new location this year. In previous years, the House has booked the entire hotel Capitol Hill Hotel, just a block from the Cannon Building, for the length of the program.

Briefings organized by the House Administration Committee begin Thursday and continue into the second phase of the orientation after the Thanksgiving holiday. Members-elect will hear about office budgets, personnel regulations and travel limitations. They’ll also learn about ethical guidelines and get an overview of the protective services of the Capitol Police.

The orientation’s climactic event won’t happen until Nov. 30 — the lottery where office suites are parceled out. It’s a high-drama and high-stakes undertaking in which the freshly elected draw numbers and hope to avoid the backwater offices on the fifth floor of Cannon. (These spaces aren’t the best of the best; those have already been spoken for by returning incumbents.)

Members-elect are welcome to bring their spouses, and in recent years a few have brought their young children along to explore.

Taxpayers foot much of the bill as the candidates they elected learn how to serve in Congress. According to a Roll Call analysis of House disbursement reports from previous election cycles, the largest cost associated with orientation is usually housing all the newcomers. The largest single line cost for 2016’s orientation was a $260,000 payment to the Capitol Hill Hotel.

Food was a big expense too. The last new member orientation incurred $25,000 in catering costs the day the incoming freshmen arrived — the single largest payment for food and drink by any House entity during the fourth quarter of 2016.

The second-highest payment for food was also by the House Committee on Administration on the second day of orientation, though that $11,700 charge was not listed as related to orientation.

The total amount spent on past orientations was about $560,000 in 2012 and $370,000 two years later. The cost fluctuates based on how many nonincumbent candidates win their races in November.

Watch: Ocasio-Cortez Choosing Not to Move to DC Until 2019 Anyway

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