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New House member orientation features significant shifts

Face masks, paid transition staffers, new location all on tap

The freshly elected newcomers of the House descend Thursday on Washington for the start of the new member orientation. But this time, they face the challenge of meeting future colleagues from behind masks, one of many changes that makes the biennial event much different from previous years.

Electoral winners from around the country will come together for lunches, tours and briefings, mixing and mingling for the first time. Orientation marks the first real taste of life as a member of Congress — from interacting with the Capitol Hill press corps to forging relationships with new colleagues. That much doesn’t represent much of a change.

Much more significant? Paid staffers to ease the transition to Congress.

Paid aides

Staffing and equipping offices in Washington and home states is a huge undertaking, especially for true newcomers to Capitol Hill who are not following in the footsteps of previous employers in Congress or even family members who have served in the legislative branch.

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A new program available to members-elect aims to facilitate the transition and compensate a staffer who takes the lead on standing up operations for their newly elected boss. It allows a transition aide to be hired to help stand up offices and manage logistics of entering Congress.

The transition aide program is the result of a recommendation from the House’s Modernization of Congress Committee and is based off a Senate program for new members.

Transition aides are paid staffers who help get Washington and district operations underway for members-elect. The House will cover expenses for transition aides to attend orientation, and the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer will cover up to $5,000 per month in salary expenses, which is equivalent to a $60,000 annual salary. Any salary beyond that will be charged to the office budget of the member-elect at the start of the new Congress in January.

Aides will be issued a laptop and phone by the House, and get a email address and access to the House network right off the bat.

“Ideal candidates would possess excellent organizational and communication skills, be detail-oriented, and work well under pressure,” reads a fact sheet from the House Administration Committee. “Familiarity with the legislative environment and House operations is suggested, but not required.”

There are strict parameters on who can or cannot serve as a transition aide. They cannot be family members of the lawmaker or hold a lobbying or federal employee position while serving as a transition aide.

The addition of a transition aide to the onboarding process for new lawmakers comes after scathing after-action reports from the 2018 class of freshmen, who tried to set up their offices amid a government shutdown.

“It’s been sort of a nightmare,” Chief Administrative Officer Philip G. Kiko told the House Modernization panel in July 2019 about setting up offices for the 116th Congress’ large freshman class.

Kiko said he’d gotten “a lot of negative feedback,” an understatement considering New York Democrat Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez aired her complaints about delays and technology issues on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” early in the 116th Congress.

Aides and members-elect have been warned that many orientation events that might have been open to staffers in previous years may be future members-only to maintain social distancing and public health precautions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The other side

A quirk of this year’s orientation for new House members: It will take place on the other chamber’s side of the campus. Thursday’s scheduled “move-in day,” when members-elect claim rooms in a Capitol Hill hotel on the Senate side of campus, will be at a new location. Previous years for House member orientation have typically involved a House-side hotel, and in 2018, it was held near the Navy Yard (still on the House side, but a little further away from the Capitol).

Briefings organized by the House Administration Committee begin Friday and continue into the post-Thanksgiving second phase of the orientation that will end Dec. 5. 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 climatic event won’t happen until early December — 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 the Cannon House Office Building. (Even the best spaces up for grabs aren’t the best of the best; those have already been spoken for by returning incumbents.)

Maybe members

What about those tight races that haven’t been called yet? There are more than a dozen uncalled House races in New York, California, Iowa and Utah.

Traditionally, candidates in races that are too close to call days after Election Day are invited to attend the freshman orientation.

That’s the case again this year, which means it is not yet clear who will be featured in the freshman class photo.

You look familiar

Two members-elect who clinched their seats last week might not need the full orientation, because they’ve been here before.

Republicans Pete Sessions of Texas and Darrell Issa of California will be returning to Capitol Hill after a brief time away. Sessions served 22 years in the chamber, including as chairman of the House Rules Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, but he was defeated in 2018. He’s back after winning in a different Texas district.

Issa served in the chamber for 18 years, including as House Oversight chairman, before retiring in 2018. He’s back to represent California’s 50th District, previously held by Republican Duncan Hunter, who will soon begin serving prison time on corruption charges.

Speaking of the Senate

Incoming senators arrived on Capitol Hill earlier this week, posing for photos with their party’s leaders in the chamber and getting their bearings.

New senators have their own orientation that is much shorter and less regimented than the House version. A few former House members elected to the Senate have been surprised by the less structured welcome in the other chamber.

“The Senate [orientation] was like doing trust falls. It really was,” Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, who lost his reelection last week, joked to Roll Call in 2016. “You’d sit in the room, and you’d talk about what it was like to be in the Senate.”

Kate Ackley and Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.

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