One Month In: How Freshmen Lawmakers Are Adjusting to Congress

Freshmen learn to use their voting cards and work to hold on to their hats.

Gary Peters, Carlos Curbelo and Debbie Bingell.
National Journal
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Sarah Mimms
Feb. 6, 2015, midnight

As mem­bers stream in­to the House cham­ber for votes these days, the fresh­men are still easy to spot. For one thing, they’re on time: While vet­er­an law­makers tend to stroll in at their leis­ure, of­ten five or 10 minutes after the yeas and nays have be­gun, new mem­bers are fre­quently spot­ted pok­ing their heads in be­fore a vote has even been called. And while the ma­jor­ity of mem­bers enter solo, fresh­men of­ten ar­rive with en­tour­ages of aides to help them get things right — or simply get to the right place. On one re­cent even­ing in the House, Rep. Norma Torres of Cali­for­nia sat out­side the cham­ber get­ting briefed on the le­gis­la­tion she was about to vote on, while Rep. Bon­nie Wat­son Cole­man of New Jer­sey con­sul­ted with two staffers and sev­er­al House se­cur­ity guards about where ex­actly she was sup­posed to be.

As the new Con­gress wrapped up its first month in ses­sion, we wondered how the fresh­men were ad­just­ing to their jobs. So Na­tion­al Journ­al can­vassed some new mem­bers to find out how things were go­ing so far. We asked them to share some of the high­lights, chal­lenges, and oth­er­wise mem­or­able mo­ments from their first weeks in of­fice. Be­low are their ed­ited and con­densed re­sponses.

THE HIGH­LIGHTS

Gary Peters is adjusting to the Senate. (Douglas Graham/ CQ Roll Call ) CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

 I already feel like I’ve got trac­tion on some is­sues I’m work­ing on. I have had col­leagues on some is­sues come to me and ask me for guid­ance. I kind of thought there would be a bench-warm­ing peri­od, but you’re thrust in­to the game. There are some chal­lenges as­so­ci­ated with that, but there’s also a won­der­ful op­por­tun­ity.

Sen. Bill Cas­sidy (R-La.)

 I’ve been think­ing about the is­sues re­lated to King v. Bur­well, so there’s a win­dow whereby the things I’ve been do­ing for three years in the House might per­col­ate up in­to sig­ni­fic­ance. Key­stone XL I’ve been work­ing on for three years. And LNG Ex­port Ter­min­als we had a hear­ing on today. So there’s a lot of the stuff I’ve been work­ing on; it’s been nice that I can kind of bring that work to a point.

Sen. Cory Gard­ner (R-Colo.)

 There’s a great op­por­tun­ity for bi­par­tis­an­ship in the Sen­ate. It should also ex­ist in the House, but it is just easi­er to get there in the Sen­ate, be­cause of the way the rules and the pro­cess is con­struc­ted. So, one high­light is get­ting to know people on both sides of the aisle. There are only 100 of us, so it’s a good op­por­tun­ity.

Rep. Dav­id Young (R-Iowa)

 I guess the high­light was be­ing sworn in and look­ing up at the gal­lery and see­ing my fam­ily there.

Rep. Debbie Din­gell (D-Mich.)

 On the second day, be­ing asked to go on Air Force One on the way back to the dis­trict, and sit­ting next to my hus­band, John, on the plane.

Rep. Ruben Gal­lego (D-Ar­iz.)

 It nev­er gets old walk­ing in­to Con­gress to vote. For me, it’s just kind of awe-in­spir­ing.

Rep. Bon­nie Wat­son Cole­man (D-N.J.)

 I have good guides who are help­ing me to find where I’m sup­posed to be. I’m get­ting the hang of the pro­cess and the par­lia­ment­ary pro­ced­ure.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.)

 It’s been a pretty smooth trans­ition, hav­ing spent six years over in the House. I en­joy be­ing over here, though. It’s a smal­ler group of folks and you’re able to build re­la­tion­ships quick­er with a smal­ler group, so I’m en­joy­ing that part of it.

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THE CHAL­LENGES

Carlos Curbelo says the pace is intense. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

 The pace is quite in­tense, and I’m still work­ing on find­ing a good routine. I’ve al­ways been a routine-ori­ented per­son, and I’m not quite there yet. The struggle has been find­ing time to sit at a desk and get back to people, or work on le­gis­la­tion, or just sit with staff to brain­storm. There’s been no time. So one of the things I’m go­ing to be do­ing to save time and money is let go of the apart­ment I ren­ted and move in­to my of­fice.

Sen. Dan Sul­li­van (R-Alaska)

 I don’t think Lisa Murkowski and I wanted Alaska in the news this much, in terms of what the pres­id­ent has done re­cently. You know, the es­tim­ates are, over four or five days, they’ve taken close to 22 mil­lion acres of some of the most prime pro­spect­ive oil and gas lands off the table, all from Alaska. That’s about four times the size of Mas­sachu­setts.

Rep. Debbie Din­gell (D-Mich.)

 Dur­ing the snowstorm, I wanted to have John there for my swear­ing-in. It’s dif­fi­cult when — you know that you’re an adult, but you want the most im­port­ant man in your life to be there. But it didn’t make sense for him to come in, so that made me sad. I had oth­er friends and fam­ily who were able to be there. It was a hard day, but bit­ter­sweet.

Rep. Ruben Gal­lego (D-Ar­iz.)

 I could do bet­ter with the weath­er, I’ll tell you that. And, you know, when you’re from Ari­zona, you’re just not used to car­ry­ing a jack­et and a hat and gloves and a scarf. I haven’t lost my jack­et, but I’ve lost my scarf, my hat, my gloves. I’m just not used to look­ing around for them when I get up to leave. So that’s bad.

Rep. Bon­nie Wat­son Cole­man (D-N.J.)

 I think the sort of real-time brief­ing and im­me­di­ate ac­tion on le­gis­la­tion is something I didn’t really ap­pre­ci­ate un­til com­ing here. It re­quires my do­ing some really fast read­ing.

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.)

 Well, it’d be bet­ter if I had a few more Dems in the fresh­men class. I cer­tainly would like that.

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OTH­ER MEM­OR­ABLE MO­MENTS

Sen. Dan Sul­li­van (R-Alaska)

 My first day in the chair presid­ing — you prob­ably know my col­league from Alaska, Lisa Murkowski, has been on the floor a lot. So I was presid­ing and was po­litely rep­rim­anded by the par­lia­ment­ari­an when I re­cog­nized my seni­or sen­at­or as “the sen­at­or from the great state of Alaska.” They turned around and they said, very quietly and po­litely, “Sen­at­or Sul­li­van. You’re not sup­posed to say that.” And I’m like, “Say what?” “Say ‘great state.’”‰” And I said, “Well, but it’s true.”

Sen. Cory Gard­ner (R-Colo.)

 You know, I’m just amused by sit­ting on com­mit­tee and look­ing around and see­ing who’s run­ning for pres­id­ent. That’s what I’ve got­ten a kick out of.

Rep. Dav­id Young (R-Iowa)

 Go­ing home on the week­ends. I’ve been home every week­end since be­ing sworn in. There’s noth­ing more re­fresh­ing than get­ting out of Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Be­cause noth­ing good hap­pens after 9 o’clock or on the week­ends in D.C. — you know that, don’t you?

Debbie Dingell says her swearing-in was bittersweet. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call) CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

 I have funny stor­ies. Like Di­ana De­Gette hav­ing to teach me how to use my vot­ing card. I was us­ing it like a cred­it card, you know: in-and-out. But you have to leave your vot­ing card in.

Rep. Ruben Gal­lego (D-Ar­iz.)

 I went out with Con­gress­man Gri­jalva dur­ing the House Demo­crat­ic re­treat in Phil­adelphia, and we’re walk­ing back in­to the hotel lobby, and you have to go through se­cur­ity. They told the con­gress­man, “Go right on through, Con­gress­man.” But they made me go through se­cur­ity. It didn’t help that Con­gress­man Gri­jalva was like, “Oh you’ve gotta check that guy, he’s dan­ger­ous.”

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