You don’t have to be a professional number cruncher to know that with so many seats in Congress swapping parties, it also means that we’ve swapped people who have been there and done that (aka incumbents) for people who’ve either never been there and done that, or have only been there and done that in local settings under local or state procedures.
In other words, freshman orientation for the 112th Congress and for new governors will probably be more like a hangover than a party, with the old hands being like the sober, designated drivers who retained clarity, agility and the wherewithal to do whatever they want with the still dizzy pledges.
As someone who was elected for her first time last year and joined a city council whose “newest” member had been on for 10 years already (the other newly-elected with me had been on a city commission for eight years), I’ve been there and done that.
What kind of chaos – and lack of governing, expense of educating and attempt to convince them to “just listen to us! We’ll tell you all you need to know!” – should the frosh (and us mere voters) expect?
First, the numbers: Truly, no one with their thinking cap on should be surprised by these numbers in Tuesday morning’s pre-results First Read:
After tonight, we will see 17 to 21 new senators, meaning at least 40 out of the 100 members will be first-term senators after tonight. We’re going to see as many as 30 new governors. And we’ll probably get 80 to 100 new members of Congress. This is truly the big-picture story no one is talking about — how we’re set for the biggest year of political transition in recent memory.
Add to that portrait:
- the number of men who will win their races over women incumbents and forcing the first decline in the total number of women in Congress since the 1970s,
- the loss of Speaker Nancy Pelosi and
- the the second coming of John Boehner in her place, and we’ve got ourselves one enormous set of frosh.
My prediction is that what we will see is something unlike anything that anyone has talked about yet, though they may have thought about it but are in denial.
Trying to keep this totally nonpartisan, the good news is supposed to be that we have fresh blood, people more like us, a new influx of perspectives representing more and broader slices of life. I can live with that.
But the bad news is that those folks already in office and the ones returning are going to have the upper hand at every step of the way. Despite this glowy review of being a 2009 freshman in Congress, read carefully:
Although we had three freshman orientations, nothing could prepare us for the speed with which we would hit the ground running as soon as we took the oath of office.
The “floor” of the House, what you see on C-SPAN, is technically where the action happens, but really, we run our voting cards through a little meter, push a yes or no button, and chat about our vote. Much of the rest of our time is wasted, scurrying around between our offices, hearings, caucuses and back to the floor to vote.
Hours go by in what seems like seconds, and each day is filled with countless challenges and crises. It’s a far cry from my former life.
Three orientations? Ha – I asked for a couple of hours of our law director’s time and then got an orientation – in another city – only because the village next to mine decided to spring for a new council member orientation and they took pity on me.
Surely I’m overestimating this issue, right? Wrong. Two of the most infuriating situations (and yes, they’ve happened to me on Council) are these:
-You are made to think that whatever an old hand tells you “must” be the way it is. Until you find out that it isn’t and by then it’s too late – you’ve already cast your vote the way they wanted you to but in a way that perhaps really doesn’t jive with what you want, or what you think your constituents would want.
-You don’t have enough time to dig into the things you want to dig into because you are so sidetracked by what you don’t know – and you don’t even know what you don’t know, until, again, you go along with some decision because you trust the person advising you, and then you learn new information that makes you wish you’d kept on researching until you knew what you believe you really needed to.
When it comes to women’s issues and making certain that, with all the change that is about to occur, the Congressional agenda continues to reflect the needs of more than 50% of this country’s population, you must layer on top of this scenario the shift away from having a woman in charge – Nancy Pelosi – and moving back to the Republican man from Southern Ohio, John Boehner.
Start with this recap of John Boehner’s War on Women and his absolute opposition to funding family planning. He also steadfastly opposed the Lilly Ledbetter Act. And no surprise, he gets a 0 from That’s My Congress for failing to support anything remotely progressive. You can see a list of his votes here and they include:
- Voted NO on expanding research to more embryonic stem cell lines. (Jan 2007)
- Voted NO on allowing human embryonic stem cell research. (May 2005)
- Voted YES on restricting interstate transport of minors to get abortions. (Apr 2005)
- Voted YES on funding for health providers who don’t provide abortion info. (Sep 2002)
- Voted YES on banning Family Planning funding in US aid abroad. (May 2001)
- Voted YES on barring transporting minors to get an abortion. (Jun 1999)
- Rated 0% by NARAL, indicating a pro-life voting record. (Dec 2003)
Let’s not even get started with this campaigning for Ohio candidate, Rich Iott (who lost to Marcy Kaptur), the person who refused to even acknowledge how his hobby of re-enacting Nazi SS soldiers might be unsettling for some people.
Imagine this person being in charge of orienting freshman. Can you imagine where they’ll end up?
But don’t take my word for the out of body experience of being brand new in a (huge, intimidating, overly-male) government body. Here are other reports from inside the arena shortly after getting into the arena:
Walt Minnick, freshman in the 111th Congress on NPR in 11/08.
Mary Jo Kilroy, from the same class: Leaders Make Us Cram Like “Kids” – and they don’t have time to read the bills.
Here’s the freshman class list from that same Congress.
Sarah Palin recently judged President Obama as having “blown it” in two years time, but she quit just after nominally serving two years in the Alaska governor’s mansion. With so many newcomers to Congress and other governors’ digs, how much time will the voters who insisted on sweeping out so many incumbents, even those who were performing well for their districts, give their newly elected officials?
My experience says, way less than a year. That’s going to keep the turmoil brewing and the ability for women in office to wield any power very weak.
As I recall it, freshman orientation did always seem to be more fun for the upperclassman. This time around, it may also be a big power grab for the predominantly male upperclass too.