There was both jumping for joy and fiery exchanges in the early days of orientation for the freshman class of the 117th Congress, as newly elected lawmakers from across the country and political spectrum came together to learn about life on Capitol Hill.
With badges strung around their necks on lanyards and masks covering much of their faces, the members-elect toured the Capitol, snapping photos of one another and marveling at the heights of power they’ve ascended to.
New York Democrat Jamaal Bowman was overwhelmed by the significance of being a part of the incoming class of lawmakers and all there is to learn.
“It’s incredible. It’s amazing to be here. Obviously, it’s just overwhelming, the stature of the Capitol and all of my new colleagues and a ton of information, so just kind of taking it all in. It’s been great,” he told reporters.
Some elements, like photo portraits and trying out the cafeterias, are bound to feel like the members-elect are going back to school.
Members-elect have training on office budgets, personnel regulations and travel limitations. In auditoriums with seats marked off-limits with tape to keep social distance, they’re also learning about ethical guidelines and getting an overview of the protective services of the Capitol Police.
The newcomers are a diverse group, both ideologically and in background and identity. A record-breaking number of Republican women are in this freshman class, alongside progressive Democrats who unseated establishment figures from their own party in primaries.
After an evening tour of the Capitol last week, Bowman already found one thing he believes needs changing.
“You know, last night we did a tour of the Capitol, which was very nice, and immediately what we noticed was we need more statues of African Americans. There are not enough statues of African Americans. That’s key,” he told reporters.
He said statues are just one way that the American story can be told in a more complete way at the Capitol, including uplifting the history of Native American culture and the experience of Black people.
Masks cause a stir
Incoming lawmakers were under clear instructions to remain masked for orientation, which only made meeting new colleagues and differentiating fellow members-elect from staff even more of a challenge than in past orientations.
Rep.-elect Nancy Mace did everyone a favor, wearing a mask with her name on it.
But masks caused tension and heartache too.
Missouri Democrat Cori Bush wore a black mask with Breonna Taylor’s name in white letters, honoring the woman killed by police in Kentucky. The death of Taylor, who was shot in her home, prompted massive protests and attention across the globe.
“A few of my Republican colleagues have called me Breonna, assuming that’s my name. It hurts. But I’m glad they’ll come to know her name & story because of my presence here,” Bush tweeted.
“It’s just disheartening and it was hurtful, absolutely hurtful,” Bush told reporters.
“This has been national news for a long time. People have protested in the street with this name,” she said, pointing to her mask.
While Bush was using her mask to make a statement, another member-elect made a very different statement during one of the early training sessions of orientation.
Majorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican known for her support of QAnon, wore an American flag mask during much of orientation. But she took a loud stand during one session against public health guidance on masks.
“Our first session of New Member Orientation covered COVID in Congress,” she tweeted. “Masks, masks, masks…. I proudly told my freshman class that masks are oppressive. In GA, we work out, shop, go to restaurants, go to work, and school without masks. My body, my choice.”
She used the hashtag “#FreeYourFace.”
Madison Cawthorn, a Republican from North Carolina who has also pushed boundaries with his tweets and statements, called Greene’s tirade “pretty fiery” and said that “it was an interesting moment for everybody.”
Cawthorn said that in between presentations and training, he appreciated the chance to meet his new colleagues on both sides of the aisle. He told reporters he’d met a lot of the Republicans in the class previously at the Republican National Convention and other gatherings throughout the years.
“But it’s interesting getting to meet the Democrats. They’re — most of them are very kind. I think we’ll have a good working relationship with everybody,” he told reporters.
Rep. Rodney Davis, the top Republican on the House Administration Committee, which runs orientation, said he hopes the new members are seeing beyond partisanship.
“I hope the message that the new members get is that it’s not all about politics here. It’s about working together, getting things done,” said Davis, an Illinois Republican.
He said that while he hadn’t yet seen any noteworthy friendships emerging across the aisle, he reminisced about his own orientation experience.
“I know some of my closest friends on the other side of the aisle … those friendships were forged during new member orientation back in 2012,” he said.
Orientation typically features gilded banquet dinners for the incoming members of each party in iconic Statuary Hall, but viral criticism forced a pivot Friday.
Democratic House leaders changed course after a photo of preparations for the indoor dinner went viral and was met with public outcry. It was perceived as problematic that a large indoor dinner was considered appropriate for Congress while public health officials and Democratic lawmakers are urging Americans to reconsider traveling and gathering with family for Thanksgiving, as COVID-19 cases continue to skyrocket across the country.
“It’s very spaced. We have all the ventilation and permission from the doctor. We’ll have ours, and then the Republicans will have theirs,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi told NBC’s Leigh Ann Caldwell on Friday afternoon.
After Caldwell’s image of golden tablecloths and purple floral centerpieces went viral, along with Pelosi’s justifications, several changes to the dinner were made.
By 5:50 p.m. Friday, Pelosi’s office announced that members-elect would be allowed to pick up their meals in a socially distanced manner. By 7:30, the group dinner was off.
“Members-elect are now picking up their boxed meals and departing the Capitol. There is no group dinner. Members-elect are in DC already for orientation,” tweeted Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff.
On Sunday evening, after a reconfiguration of tables and chairs in Statuary Hall to small tables seating only two people each, Republicans also transitioned their dinner to be a takeout event. But the group still gathered for a reception where Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a former House member, spoke.
Wildest dreams realized
New York Democrat Ritchie Torres, the first openly gay Afro Latino person elected to Congress, posted a video during orientation about exceeding his own imagination by being on Capitol Hill.
“I never thought in my wildest dreams as a poor kid of color that I would go from public housing in the Bronx to the People’s House in Washington, D.C.,” he said, with the Capitol Dome rising up behind him.
“I am fired up, and I am looking forward to causing good trouble,” he said, a reference to what the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said people should pursue.
Bush, who posted about her journey thrift shopping for clothes ahead of orientation, is coming to terms with being the first black woman elected to represent Missouri in Congress.
“I’m somebody from a regular background who’s, you know, working class, struggled a lot in my life. Someone that people thought could never be here, and I am here,” she told reporters. “It opens up the door for everybody to just be like, look, I could be the first, you know. … It’s like going beyond your wildest dreams and making real change,” said Bush, showing off a Class of 2020 cup.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Ritchie Torres’ name.