Members of the House of Representatives freshman class will begin their official orientation session tomorrow, and many of them have no idea how lucky they are. New lawmakers in years past were never given the courtesies and opportunities which are now being extended to the incoming 112th Congress.
The GOP freshmen picked the right year to run for Congress, and they are arriving on Capitol Hill at a time when significant reforms are being enacted. All of the newcomers are being inundated with phone calls, text messages and letters from their colleagues who are hoping to serve as Chairmen of the 25 House standing committees.
On Wednesday the freshmen will begin the process of voting on a permanent earmark ban and other reforms. The closed rules of the Pelosi era which allowed no amendments are being replaced by open rules. The freshmen who served under Speaker Pelosi never experienced an open rule, and they were unable to debate on the House floor because of severe time limits.
For the past four years freshmen were truly second class citizens. They had to wait until the House completed all of its legislative business, and the leadership departed. They were then able to speak during highly partisan “special orders” that had no impact on the final outcome.
The Pelosi era had little transparency, and lawmakers were forced to vote on bills they had never seen. The Speaker actually said you had to vote for her bill in order to find out what was in it. The powerful House Rules Committee allowed no opposition to the Speaker, but in the Republican era, video cameras are being installed so the public can watch all proceedings. Republicans have told the Air Force the new Speaker will not be using Pelosi’s private jet.
The freshman are also benefiting from several of the contests for committee chairmanships. They are reporting numerous conversations with lawmakers such as Congressmen Joe Barton (TX) and Fred Upton (MI) who are both trying to become chairmen of the Energy and Commerce Committee.
All of the presumptive Chairmen are asking to visit the freshmen individually, and they offering assistance with staff and expressing a willingness to do errands for their new colleagues. The incoming lawmakers say they are overwhelmed, and claim not to have the amount of time their senior colleagues desire.
The freshman will never know how terrible things use to be for junior Members. President Lyndon Johnson wrote about his early years on the House Armed Services Committee. Chairman Carl Vinson (D-GA) had “no tolerance at all for interference.”
Johnson tried to ask an Admiral a question during a committee hearing, but Vinson slammed down the gavel and said the question was out of order. LBJ protested by noting he had been a member of the committee for three terms, and “when would it be possible to ask a simple question?” Vinson then said, “All right, but just one question.”
In Honor in the House: Speaker Tom Foley, the author describes his experiences as a freshman Congressman in 1965. His orientation session was addressed by Rep. Michael Kirwin (D-OH) of the Appropriations Committee, who was known as “Mr. Public Works.” Kirwin told Foley’s class:
That he wanted to warn us about the single greatest danger that could happen to a new Member of Congress. All in the room leaned forward to hear the wisdom about to be imparted on them. Kirwin declared ‘That danger is thinking for yourselves. Avoid that at all costs. . . You must support, defend and follow the Speaker.’ My class was outraged, but years later when I became Speaker, I laughingly thought Kirwin was right after all.
Foley also wrote about his first day on the Agriculture Committee when the Chairman, Rep. Harold Cooley (D-NC), said he wanted to say a few words to new Members:
I want to welcome you but I also want to make it clear that I absolutely hate and detest to hear freshman members of this committee interrupting senior members when they are speaking. By asking questions or asking them to yield or any other disruptive activity, you freshman members will find, if you only remain silent and attentive, you may learn enough to make a constructive contribution to our committee. In the meantime, observe the decorum of the committee which puts senior members, in all circumstances, preference over freshman.