'Freshman orientation' takes members of Congress back to school

Newly-elected Congressional members will begin on January 3

I suspect that high school freshman orientation is similar to all orientations.

It was exciting to head to a new school building. Meet some of the new teachers. Walk around the school with my dot matrix-printed class schedule to figure out where freshman science class would meet and locate the room upstairs for German. I got to meet upper classmen and talk to a senior cheerleader. 

The senior class president spoke and welcomed the incoming class. He suggested we join different clubs or play sports. A varsity football player, the senior class president cracked a sarcastic remark about the creation of our first-ever soccer team. I chuckled at that, even though I would be the starting goalkeeper for the soccer squad.

Freshman orientation for new members of Congress may well be just like high school. 

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You come to a new building — albeit a powder white one with a hulking dome. You meet the new teachers (And no. We’re not referring to the press corps). You walk around to figure out where your offices and committee rooms are (keep in mind that the U.S. Capitol itself has 540 rooms). You speak with upperclassmen — though some of these men and women are called "committee chairs." If they lead a House Appropriations subcommittee, they are called "cardinals." The senior class presidents will speak to you. Often key members of the leadership. But you can join lots of different groups and not get sneered at. The Afghanistan Caucus. The Agritourism Caucus. Go find Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky. — he may invite you to join the Bourbon Caucus. Although you could also join the Rum Caucus or the Small Brewers Caucus. 

Members-elect and attend New House Member Orientation in the Capitol Visitor Center Auditorium on Capitol Hill on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022 in Washington, DC. Tomorrow, House Republicans will hold elections for leadership positions in the 118th Congress.  

Members-elect and attend New House Member Orientation in the Capitol Visitor Center Auditorium on Capitol Hill on Monday, Nov. 14, 2022 in Washington, DC. Tomorrow, House Republicans will hold elections for leadership positions in the 118th Congress.   (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

And there is in fact a Soccer Caucus. 

Not as much snickering at that one these days, especially since the U.S. just defeated Iran 1-0 in Qatar to advance to the next round of the World Cup. 

But we digress.

It is said that Congress is lot like high school. That’s because all of life is a lot like high school. That’s why freshmen orientation is so similar to what most of us endured at age 14 or 15, our faces pockmarked with acne. Braces wired to our teeth. This year’s incoming freshman class elected Rep.-elect Russell Fry, R-S.C., to be class president. Very similar to what goes down in high school. 

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Each Member of Congress is assigned a number, based on seniority. 

Rep.-elect Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., has some seniority over other freshmen. That’s because Montanans first elected Zinke to the House in 2014. Former President Trump then tapped Zinke to serve as Interior Secretary. Zinke held that role for two years then departed government. 

After Montana gained a House seat thanks to the Census and reapportionments, Zinke ran for the new district in western Montana and won. So since Zinke served in the House before, he scores a seniority bump. Zinke won’t rank alongside the other freshmen just entering Congress. That likely means Zinke scores a more choice piece of congressional real estate for an office. Plus, Zinke will have a leg up on his colleagues when it comes to committee assignments.

Rep.-Elect Rudy Yakym (R-IN) speaks with other newly elected lawmakers before going to an orientation meeting in the U.S. Capitol Building on November 14, 2022 in Washington, DC. 

Rep.-Elect Rudy Yakym (R-IN) speaks with other newly elected lawmakers before going to an orientation meeting in the U.S. Capitol Building on November 14, 2022 in Washington, DC.  (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

In addition, Rep. Rudy Yakym, R-Ind., won a special election to succeed late Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., who died in a car crash over the summer. Yakym will fulfill Walorski’s unexpired term late this year and early next. Voters elected Yakym to a full term beginning next year. The House swore-in Yakym just before the Thanksgiving recess, so while Yakym will be a freshman next year, he is actually ahead of the rest of his classmates in seniority. 

One of the biggest challenges for incoming members is learning the biorhythms of the Capitol, its culture and how the place works. Many lawmakers served in state or local government. That experience helps, but no matter what lawmakers did before, Congress works differently and unfolds in ways that you can’t imagine. 

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In other words, Mrs. Heiser’s 8th grade English class wasn’t going to be anything like Mrs. Bateman’s freshman English class. 

This impacts how lawmakers hire staff.

Years ago, one incoming lawmaker insisted to me about how they wanted to keep their press staff based in the district to attend to local needs. But then the communications director lamented to me a few months in that they felt cut off from what was going on in Washington and had no clue when the House may call certain roll call votes and lacked understanding on what some votes even meant. 

Incoming House members participate in a member-elect class photo on the East Front Steps of the U.S. Capitol on November 15, 2022 in Washington, DC. Newly elected House members are in Washington this week for new member orientation.

Incoming House members participate in a member-elect class photo on the East Front Steps of the U.S. Capitol on November 15, 2022 in Washington, DC. Newly elected House members are in Washington this week for new member orientation. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The aide lasted a while but eventually quit.

It’s always interesting to see the churn of freshmen staff on Capitol Hill. Some freshmen burn through staff because they are still trying to figure out how to do the job. 

This is why one panel of current lawmakers briefed the freshman on things they wish they had known when they arrived in Washington. Another panel focused on how freshman could stay focused on their jobs despite the hyperbolic, politically-charged atmosphere.

One of the highlights of freshman orientation hits Friday. That’s when the House rookies draw lots for their Congressional offices. 

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The office lottery used to work like the NFL draft.

House officials would draw the name of each member. Like the NFL, the incoming lawmakers would be "on the clock." They’d have 15 minutes to select their office. The exercise sometimes meant freshmen and incoming aides would sprint down the hallways to check out the best digs available, then race back to report which office they took (perhaps Congress should have taken another page from the NFL and conducted a combine). Sometimes an office they wanted was just taken. So they’d have to shift gears. You may have been looking to draft a tight end. But since that guy from Auburn is taken, you’ll go with the offensive guard from TCU. 

The office lottery felt like a bit of congressional hazing. Frankly, it probably was. 

Just like high school.

The exterior of the U.S Capitol is seen during the second day of orientation for new members of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., on Monday, November 14, 2022. 

The exterior of the U.S Capitol is seen during the second day of orientation for new members of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C., on Monday, November 14, 2022.  (Sarah Silbiger for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

House officials conduct the lottery differently now, and it's much more civilized. Lawmakers draw numbers and know when they have to be ready to pick an office. They don’t wait around for hours in case their number comes up. Lawmakers have often pre-picked the offices available to them and have some sense of what’s available.

The least-desirable offices in Congress used to be on the fifth floor of the Cannon House Office Building across the street from the Capitol. And freshmen used to wind up on the top floor of Cannon almost exclusively.

The offices were scrunched. To make up for that, the House converted storage space across the hall from the fifth floor offices into semi-habitable locales. Those hovels featured intimidating, steel cages, worthy of intake at Rikers Island. The cages included phones, desks and copy machines. And believe it or not, interns and even some junior aides worked inside the cages

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The fifth floor offices were a trek from the House floor. Some of elevators in Cannon didn’t run all the way to the fifth floor, only to the fourth. The longtime joke on Capitol Hill is that there was perhaps a connection between elevators not running to the top floor and the lawmakers who toiled in those offices. 

But the elevators are now improved. Cannon is now undergoing a multi-year refurbishment and the digs in Cannon are among the most modern on Capitol Hill. No one feels like they’re about to get booked by Detectives Stabler and Benson on Law and Order: SVU.

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But orientations can never formally prepare anyone for what’s next, be it a high school freshman or a freshman House member. The only difference is experience.

The freshmen will soon get that experience beginning January 3 when the new Congress starts. 

They had better learn fast. The lawmakers will still be freshmen at that point, but in the eyes of the voters, they’ll then be "incumbents."