Reporter's Notebook: The Freshmen

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Published November 22, 2008

| FoxNews.com

We've all been freshmen before. But few of us have been freshmen in Congress.

"This whole experience is like going to college," said Democratic Rep.-elect Jared Polis of Colorado.

Trust me. It's exactly the same.

Like college freshmen trying to find where their classes are, congressional freshmen must learn to navigate the Capitol complex with its labyrinths of tunnels and corridors. 

Like in school, there are lots of people to get to know -- particularly teachers. On the Hill, committee chairs and party leaders act as teachers. 

And then there's rush: lobbying for a bid in a fraternity or sorority. In Washington, you push for an assignment on the committee of your choice.

The freshmen pine to be taken seriously by upperclassmen. Incoming Republican freshmen Reps. Duncan D. Hunter of California and  Tom Rooney of Florida scored some key time with their pledge director, er, I mean House Minority Leader John Boehner on the first day of freshmen orientation. 

Boehner invited the congressional neophytes back to his lavish Capitol office quarters to watch the San Diego Chargers play the Pittsburgh Steelers on TV. Hunter is following in his retiring father's footsteps, representing suburban San Diego. Rooney's grandfather, Art, founded the Steelers and his nephew owns the team now.

And what would be the collegiate experience without some hazing?

For instance, when former Democratic Reps. Pat Schroeder of Colorado and Ron Dellums of California joined Congress in the 1970s, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee refused to give the newbies a place to sit. So they shared a chair, sitting, as Dellums described it, "cheek to cheek" in a single seat.

Those sorts of shenanigans don't go on any more. But Democratic Rep.-elect Dan Maffei of New York is cautious. 

Maffei served for years as spokesman for House Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee. While his status as a key aide certainly puts him light-years ahead of his colleagues on Capitol Hill, Maffei said he was still just a freshmen like the rest of his classmates.

"Senior members certainly don't hesitate to remind you of their seniority," Maffei told me.

In other words, if he gets out of line, Maffei can expect his old boss, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-NY) to duct tape him to the dais after the House adjourns for the night. Kind of like pro football players duct taping rookies to the goalpost at the end of August practice drills.

These freshmen are the most junior members of the House. But then there's the most junior of the junior.

Video may have killed the radio star. But it certainly gave birth to a political star. Twenty-seven year-old Aaron Shock (R-IL) is the youngest member of the freshman class, which totals more than 50 members. He's the first lawmaker ever born in the 1980s. Just two months before MTV went on the air.

On the first day of freshman orientation, the newcomers filtered into the Hyatt Hotel in the shadow of the Capitol. The House Administration Committee handed out BlackBerries and updated them on the schedule for the week.

A handful of reporters milled about the hotel lobby, frantically scanning faces to see if they matched pictures of the congressional novices.

I stared for a moment at the pictures of four white, grey-haired freshmen between 55 and 60. Visually, there wasn't a single defining characteristic between them. Picking them out of a crowd was going to be murder. Capitol Hill reporters have a name for lawmakers who look like this: they're members of the "Generic Caucus."

The problem for journalists is that many of us have never seen these people before. For instance, Democratic Rep.-elect Harry Teague of New Mexico sat unnoticed in the lounge for the better part of an hour while I scanned the throng for him just a few steps away.

Even current members don't recognize the neophytes. Republican Rep. John Carter of Texas is the House Republican Conference secretary. He made a special pilgrimage to the Hyatt to meet new Republican members.

"I know a lot of them," Carter bragged as he sat in the hotel bar.

That's when I introduced him to Republican Rep.-elect Chris Lee of New york. Lee sat directly behind Carter sipping a Coke and the congressman didn't even know it.

Perhaps the least-noticed member of the freshman class was Del.-elect Gregorio Kilili Sablan (I-MP). For those wondering what MP stands for: It's the postal abbreviation for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI).

Lawmakers decided this year to grant the CNMI a non-voting delegate position to Congress, just like Washington, DC, Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa and the US Virgin Islands. Delegates are treated just like other lawmakers. They can chair committees and caucus with parties. They're given suites in the House office buildings. They just can't vote on the floor.

Well, Sablan certainly looked like a man without a vote at the orientation. Or a state. Or a country. 

He sat dejectedly on a couch at the Hyatt as his classmates flitted about. The House Administration Committee initially wouldn't allow Sablan to take part. It cited the fact that his race wasn't certified yet (Sablan was leading by 250 votes out of 10,000 cast, with three other candidates within striking distance). Never mind the House brought in both candidates for orientation from contested races in Ohio and California.

Sources familiar with the orientation told FOX News that the House Administration panel simply forgot about the new seat from the CNMI.

So Sablan waited. And waited. Until they finally declared him the winner later in the week.

I asked Sablan how one gets to Washington from the Northern Mariana Islands. He took a four-hour flight from the capital of Saipan to Tokyo. Then boarded a Northwest flight to Detroit. Then hopped a direct flight to Washington.

"I've been traveling more than 24 hours," Sablan moaned.

And those of you in Washington complain about your commute on the Beltway.

But like all freshmen classes, even a pecking order begins to emerge there.

On Friday, most of the newcomers gathered in a hearing room in the House Rayburn Office Building for the office lottery. This is where they freshmen draw lots in alphabetical order. The lower the number, the better office they can choose.

A whoop went up in the room when House Office Building Superintendent Frank Tiscone announced that Democratic Rep.-elect Gary Peters of Michigan drew the number one chip.

"It's good to pick number one," Peters said. "My four years as the Michigan lottery commissioner certainly paid off in the pick today."

Someone suggested the fix was in.

But these freshmen have so much to do. So much to learn. And they're encountering so many new faces: Fellow freshman. Sitting lawmakers. Lobbyists. People begging for jobs. Journalists.

On Friday afternoon, I ran into a freshman member I'd chatted up several times during the week. We talked while we ordered our lunch in the Rayburn Cafeteria. I asked the freshman what office she selected. She rattled off a room number in Longworth.

"And what office did you pick?" she asked me.

Hmph. Freshmen.

FOX News' Chad Pergram has won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.

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