Having spent months traversing the campaign trail explaining to voters why they should go to Washington, 18 newly elected members of Congress visited the Kennedy School of Government (KSG) in mid-December to bone up on the challenges they’ll face once they get there.
The three-day orientation program, sponsored by the Institute of Politics (IOP), attracted a broad cross section of new members – both Republicans and Democrats – from California to Florida. For many, it was their first substantial opportunity to become acquainted with one another and with the issues they’ll be tackling together on Capitol Hill throughout the next two years.
“During our regular orientation [in Washington] we were pretty much split apart,” said Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). “We are going to need to – and certainly all of us would rather – work together, and forums like this one really foster that. It’s been great.”
Attendees participated in a number of panel discussions focusing on the federal budget, foreign policy, globalization, education, technology, Social Security, and health care. They also heard from a number of experts addressing Congress’ relationship with the sciences, the media, and the White House.
“The program is valuable for new members in two regards,” said David Gergen, Public Service Professor of Public Leadership, who served as moderator for one of the sessions. “First, they are exposed to a number of issues in an in-depth way and they have the chance to begin talking about what they’re facing – not only with the issues, but with the process.
“Secondly, they get to know each other and form networks and be supportive of one another. That personal aspect of this – the building of trust – cannot be overemphasized,” he continued. “They get to see each other before they get into the trenches, before they get into a situation where they are part of a caucus that is shooting at the other caucus, and they really begin to start seeing each other as human beings and that makes a huge difference.”
Indeed, with Inauguration Day still weeks away, the new members seemed to leave their partisan themes at home. There were no shouting matches during the orientation. There was no grandstanding, nor any passionate speeches. A majority of the attendees spent most of their time simply watching and listening and absorbing.
“I think that there are really two bundles of things that you need to equip yourself with [for Capitol Hill] – one is the mechanics of Congress … and the second being the issues,” said Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), who at 26 will become the youngest member of Congress. “The Harvard orientation has given us an outstanding primer on the issues … and when you bring in other representatives and former White House staffers and congressional leadership folks, that’s where you learn the mechanics. So this was very helpful.”
“For you freshmen, my advice is don’t try to think you are going to have the perfect solution. Don’t set your sights [too high]. That’s not how the system works.”
Ralph Hellmann, legislative director for House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.)
A dark-paneled conference room on the fifth floor of the Taubman Building served as the backdrop for the only orientation session opened to the media – focusing on Congress’ relationship with the White House. Panelists included Ken Duberstein, former White House chief of staff during the Reagan Administration; Ralph Hellmann, legislative director for House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.); and Anne Wexler, chairman of the executive committee of The Wexler Group, and a former assistant to President Carter.
Wexler briefed the new members on what they should expect from the White House, depending on whether they’re from the majority or minority party. “Always remember that in Washington there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies,” she elucidated. “Civility is the watchword.”
Hellmann spoke firsthand of the “torturous battles” waged during the “highly contentious 106th Congress,” and he laid out his hopes for a more bipartisan approach in the next session. “I think you’re going to see Congress focus on what it can get done. … If we can agree on 90 percent, let’s not let the other 10 percent stop progress in the other areas,” he said.
“For you freshmen, my advice is don’t try to think you are going to have the perfect solution. Don’t set your sights [too high]. That’s not how the system works,” he continued. “Sometimes you just need to figure out how to get into the room and play a constructive role. Do not underestimate your ability to stand up to your caucus and say ‘Cool the rhetoric.'”
Duberstein, who helped guide former President Reagan’s massive tax cut through Congress, recounted Reagan’s mastery at reaching across the aisle to those Democrats who could help his cause. “I remember Ronald Reagan as the ultimate pragmatist – trying to get as much as he could,” he said. “[President-elect] Bush feels the same way about across-the-board relationships. There is a wonderful opportunity to work together over the next two years.
“This is not going to be a love-in,” he explained, “but what the American people are looking for are a handful of issues where we can get something done. You were all elected with a clean slate. If we can find solutions together, everyone benefits.”
Putnam echoed the conciliatory theme, recalling his days in the Florida legislature. “Bipartisanship is a way of life in many state legislatures. It is not something to be labored over or beleaguered,” he said. “I think the [new Congress] will have a very different way of doing things than has been in the recent past.”
For Susan Davis (D-Calif.), the prospect of working together, rather than doing battle in fractious factions against each other, sounds enticing. And so does the opportunity to participate in additional programs designed to increase the knowledge and skills new members can put to use in Washington.
“I think these [programs] are very important,” she said, “and perhaps as a class we can decide that even if they’re not scheduled by the Kennedy School of Government in the future, we need to make a special point of getting together more. There are very few policy issues that people are able to deal with in a comfortable, safe environment. There need to be more opportunities for that, and I hope we can find some way of doing it.”