At Orientation Week, Legislators Learn the Ropes

Wide-eyed freshmen members of Congress swept into Washington this week to learn more about their new homes.

Trump campaign "Make America Great Again" hats wait for U.S. House Republicans on their seats as they arrive to a caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters )

There is something adorable about freshly elected members of Congress during orientation week. Just days after winning their races, the newbies descend on Washington for a crash course in the utterly bizarre subculture they’ve just joined. Upon arrival, they receive a pack of crisp, cream-colored business cards, printed with only their name, district, and the title “Member – Elect,” and are then released into the wilds of the nation’s capital to figure out such basics as where to live, how to navigate the Metro, who to hire (you won’t survive long without a good chief of staff), and how not to get permanently lost in the labyrinth of tunnels beneath the Capitol. (Don’t feel bad, guys. I’ve been here 20 years, and I still have trouble.)

Incoming members receive wisdom and guidance from more senior members of their state delegations. (Texans are known for taking especially good care of their own.) And leadership for both teams organize all manner of events to help their new charges get acclimated: conference meetings; dinner with leadership; endless briefings on everything from the finer points of the legislative process to basic ethics (don’t sell your vote, don’t hide bribe money in your freezer, and for God’s sake, don’t touch the interns!); a photo shoot in the House portrait studio; tech help (get that website up and running asap); and an office fair, at which new lawmakers can geek out over carpet colors and desk styles. A top concern of many newbies, say old-timers, is the lottery held at week’s end to assign office space. “That doesn’t matter,” advises Representative Tom Cole, a seasoned veteran of the office shuffle. “You won’t be there in two years.”

Then there are all the parties and field trips--particularly festive affairs this year for incoming Republicans, still giddy from the GOP’s stunning electoral triumph. On Tuesday afternoon, for instance, the members-elect headed across town to a meet-and-greet, hosted by Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, at the swank new offices of the conservative think tank AEI, down on think-tank row near Dupont Circle. There, the newbies schmoozed with classmates, think tank staffers, and a smattering of journalists. The event was off the record, allowing lawmakers 90 blissful minutes without having to watch their tongues. Then, at 6:00, they were shooed by slightly frazzled leadership staff back out onto Massachusetts Avenue, where little green tour buses were waiting to whisk them to the National Archives for a private showing of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

To be sure, the Senate has its own version of orientation. But it tends to be smaller and more cloistered, and, let’s face it, senators are way more full of themselves and concerned about dignity and decorum from the get-go. But incoming House members, especially from the winning team? A few of the young bucks feel moved to affect a knowing swagger, and here and there, the occasional celebrity stands out. (Oh, look! It’s Liz Cheney over by the canapes!) But for the most part, as they’re herded from this event to that one, the newbies resemble dazed and confused middle schoolers: milling about in their itchy church clothes, nervously sizing one another up as they try to figure out who among their classmates will wind up being their BFFs, leaders, rivals, and sworn frenemies.

“There is just so much information coming at you,” McMorris Rodgers recalls of her orientation experience. But beneath all the briefings and bad wine and general craziness, she says, the week is fundamentally about “relationship building.”

Cole could not agree more: “It’s important for incoming members to learn about colleagues in their own class,” he tells me. “These are the people you hang around with the most, other than members of your committees.” And these classmates will be extremely important during your time in the House, he stresses. “They will be your allies in leadership fights. They will be your allies in helping you get onto a committee.”

That said, sucking up to veteran members is also a vital part of orientation. (Although savvy newbies start working those channels well before Election Day.) State delegations, Cole says, often brief incoming members on “how to work the steering committee and the leadership.” Himself a member of the Republican steering committee, which doles out members’ committee assignments, Cole is intimately familiar with the drill. “If you sit on the steering committee,” he chuckles, “you see a parade of these people coming in, deluging you with material telling you why their whole life depends on if they get on a certain committee.”

Just as key: For any member hoping to stick around for more than one term, do not alienate the Hill staffers—and not simply because they’re the people you’ll need to guide you through all those underground tunnels. Staff (especially leadership staff) is watching--and judging--every move you make from the second you arrive, says Cole; they never forget, and they most certainly talk amongst themselves.

“Every statement you make, every interaction you have [with everyone from] the Capitol police to the janitor—these things form an impression,” stresses Cole. “Like Mom always told you, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. And if you get a reputation as a jerk your first couple of weeks here, that sure doesn’t help you get a good committee assignment.”

So all you newbies go out there and enjoy these early, heady days before you get swept up in the ugly blood-sport of your first legislative session. Snarf down those hors d’oeuvres, rubs those elbows, hire those staffers, and find yourself a fun flat on Capitol Hill. Just don’t forget Cole’s words of warning: “You are always being evaluated in some way by people who can have a tremendous impact on your future.”