I'm always amazed to hear track announcer Tom Durkin call the Kentucky Derby or Belmont Stakes. Into the clubhouse turn, across the infield or down the stretch, Durkin can tell you which horse is leading, who's coming up on the rail and which horses are running neck and neck. Is it the filly? By a nose? Durkin will know.
For all good track announcers, it's an acquired skill, mastered through hours of study and training.
Track announcers scrutinize distinctive characteristics of each horse, learn their gait and note the body types of each jockey to help follow the horses and anticipate maneuvers and racing patterns.
There are 541 Members of Congress, if you combine the House and Senate and include the six non-voting delegates from the U.S. territories. It's tough to learn them all. Few do. And the lawmakers themselves are often the worst offenders.
So the 112th Congress launches Wednesday with most-crowded field in recent memory. The House and Senate collectively swear-in 109 new members. This poses a particular challenge for those of us who work on Capitol Hill, ranging from reporters to staff to U.S. Capitol Police officers. And we had better be able to identify the new faces and instantly know who they are.
For starters, I'm sure glad that Rep.-elect Frederica Wilson (D-FL) always sports a big hat.
During the freshman orientation in November, it was easy to distinguish Wilson from her colleagues as she was always decked out with a hat. In fact, the Florida Democrat told me she owns several hat boxes and stowed selections from her voluminous collection in them for her travels to Washington.
It doesn't matter if Wilson is wearing a Stetson or a church hat. At least we have one figured out.
Now to the 108 others.....
In November, I probably interviewed or met about 50-plus members of the freshman class when they jetted into town for the orientation. There are a few more who I saw, but never interacted with. So I spent the better part of the past week pouring over my freshman guidebook, studying pictures and reading bios. It will take a lot of time to learn all of the new lawmakers. To say nothing of actually getting to know them.
Here's an idea: perhaps they could require the freshmen to wear numbers on their backs like football players.
You're staring out onto the House floor and see a freshman member you don't recognize. He turns around and you spot a big "78" on his back. So you check your program to see which member the number corresponds with.
As they say, you need a scorecard to keep track of the players.
Better yet, Congress could swipe a page from the numeric protocol used by the National Football League. For instance, the NFL assigns kickers, quarterbacks and some wide receivers numbers 1-19. Defensive linemen and linebackers can wear numbers 90-99. Defensive backs get numbers 20-49.
So, we could do the same with the freshmen. Democratic House freshmen are assigned numbers 1-9. That works out perfectly because there are only nine of them. The burgeoning, Republican freshmen class scores the rest.
They could even designate particular numbers for certain types of freshmen. For instance, Rep. Tom Graves (R-GA) won in a special election last year. And the House swore-in Reps. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN) and Tom Reed (R-NY) shortly after election day since their seats were vacant. All three are technically freshmen. But few on Capitol Hill know much about this trio. So the House could assign them a set of numbers.
They could also distinguish former members who are returning to Congress after losing or retiring. This batch includes Reps.-elect Steve Chabot (R-OH), Steve Pearce (R-NM), Charlie Bass (R-NH) and a few others. There could even be a set of numbers to identify Reps. Roy Blunt (R-MO), Jerry Moran (R-KS) and John Boozman (R-AR). All are House members skipping to the Senate.
But save the number system, everyone will just have to cram the next few days.
It's a challenge for reporters and the institutional staff to learn the members. But everyone knows that U.S. Capitol Police officers have it even worse.
The cops must identify the newcomers on sight as they approach the Capitol to vote. The police must also distinguish the members from staff and civilians as they come up to the magnetometers that dot each entrance to the Congressional complex. Everyone who enters the Capitol or the House and Senate office buildings must clear security, much like stepping through the metal detectors at the airport. Everyone that is, but Members of Congress. So the police HAVE to get it right.
Think this isn't a thankless task?
See McKinney, Cynthia.
In early 2006, then-Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) famously clocked a Capitol Hill police officer after he tried to stop her from entering the Longworth House Office Building. The officer didn't recognize McKinney after she switched her hairstyle.
So some observations as I try to learn the freshman class....
For starters, I have the new House Democrats down cold since there are so few of them. In fact, I've at least chatted with each of them.
Secondly, it's easy to re-learn the retreads like Chabot, Pearce, Bass and others.
However, Pearce and Bass could pose some problems to the untrained eye. Both are balding. And someone who's not careful could easily mistake Pearce for Bass or vice versa.
Without a closer look, it's easy to mistake Rep.-elect David McKinley (R-WV) for Rep.-elect Richard Nugent (R-FL). Both are nearly the same age and wear white mustaches. But McKinley's mustache is more full. Plus, I had a long conversation with Nugent during the House office lottery and got to know him a bit. I've spied McKinley in the hallway but not talked to him. So I feel like I can distinguish them.
I have not spoken yet with Reps.-elect Stephen Fincher (R-TN) and Bill Flores (R-TX). Flores is 19 years older than Fincher. But a glance at both of their photos could easily cross someone up.
Same with Reps.-elect Quico Canseco (R-TX) and Bobby Schilling (R-IL). But again, it will become easier to recognize these guys once we get a chance to monitor them as they move around the Capitol. You quickly learn who's tall and who's short. Determine who is a clothes horse. And who suffers wallows in a perpetual wardrobe malfunction.
I've only spoken briefly with Rep.-elect Sean Duffy (R-WI). But I bet someone mixes him up with Brendan Buck, an aide to Speaker-elect John Boehner (R-OH). Both are boyish looking with lean faces. Here's a clue to tell them apart: Buck is much taller.
Former NFL offensive lineman and Rep.-elect John Runyan (R-NJ) claims to be the biggest person ever elected to Congress. And at 6'7", he may be right. But the uninitiated could get Tom Reed or Rep.-elect Billy Long (R-MO) mixed up for Runyan. All are big guys.
I'm certain a few are going to cross up Rep.-elect Austin Scott (R-GA) for Todd Young (R-IN). Both are exceptionally clean cut with square jaws.
There are a few who are easy to pick out of the crowd.
Rep.-elect Ben Quayle (R-AZ) is recognizable, simply because he's been in the public eye for a while. And the Arizona Republican seems to favor his mother, former Second Lady Marilyn Quayle.
Everyone seems to know Reps.-elect Kristi Noem (R-SD) and Tim Scott (R-SC). Both are telegenic and media friendly. And the duo won seats to represent the freshmen class to the House GOP leadership.
Still, it's easy to make assumptions about who is who. During the orientation, I spotted a couple leaving one session. Both wore nametags. But I couldn't make out what was on the tag. I stopped the man and introduced myself. His name was Dave Black. A second later, his wife, Rep.-elect Diane Black (R-TN) jumped in to introduce herself to me.
Certainly it was a faux pas on my part. But it was an honest mistake.
And I'm certain it won't be the last mistake as everyone tries to learn the names and faces of the 112th Congress.