Congressional freshmen get crash course in D.C.

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Rep.-elect Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, left, Rep.-elect Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, center, and Rep.-elect Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, right, talk after the freshman class had its photo taken outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018.

Washington — More than 85 members of the U.S. House freshman class arrived on Capitol Hill this week as they prepare to join the next Congress, including four new Democrats from Michigan. 

They won't be sworn into office until January, but they're being schooled now in how to set up their offices and receiving security briefings, touring the Capitol and getting their official photos taken.

Michigan Reps.-elect Andy Levin, Elissa Slotkin, Haley Stevens and Rashida Tlaib are also meeting dozens of new colleagues from around the country — all part of the most diverse class of new members ever and the largest class in a generation.

"Consistently, everyone says focus on your district," said Tlaib of Detroit when asked the best advice she's received so far. 

"If you stay rooted in your district or rooted in your community and focus on them — maintain that connection — you will succeed here, no matter what."

The agenda includes caucus gatherings, dining with leadership, training on ethics and disclosure rules, guidance for handling constituent requests — and more dinners.

"There's so many dinners. The main thing is not to eat too much," Levin said jokingly. "That seems to be a main challenge of being a member of the House of Representatives, trying to be healthy." 

A naturally competitive bunch, they're also lobbying leaders for their preferred committee assignments and exploring the topical caucuses they might want to join, like the Ukrainian Caucus for Levin. It was co-founded  by his father, retiring Rep. Sandy Levin of Royal Oak. 

When the freshmen return the week after Thanksgiving, House officers will hold a lottery for each to pick their new Washington office.  

"I’m just learning where the bathroom is," Stevens said. "It was great to have that initial tour but I might need another one."

Much of the week is dedicated to practical matters. "You've got to find a place to live. You've got to find people to work with you," Levin said. 

Several members said they're already receiving resumes, as they start the process of hiring staff, which on the House side is typically 16 people. 

They are also considering where and how to set up their district offices, while learning restrictions on how they spend their annual budgets, which range from $1.3 million to $1.4 million, said Bradford Fitch, president and CEO of the nonprofit Congressional Management Foundation, which helps train new members. 

For instance, the budget covers the member's travel between the district and Washington, not elsewhere. And if a member overspends his or her budget, it's taken out of their paycheck, Fitch said. 

He stresses to new members that the first few months are about understanding process, not policy.

"We try to introduce them to the idea that they can’t do everything, and that they’ve got to have time for themselves and make sure the boundaries are established so they do have time with their families," Fitch said. 

"Our surveys show the average work week for members when in session is 70 hours a week. They got to understand they’re going into a job probably unlike they’ve ever done before."

In December, the freshmen are set to attend a bipartisan training session at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government on legislating.

Policy was already on new members' minds this week. Slotkin of Holly said she's eager to move on priorities such as health care reform and infrastructure upgrades. 

"Of course, we needed to learn all how the IT works and had to pick up our new phone and laptop. I want to know, what’s the plan on health care?" Slotkin said. 

"I think there’s a lot of us newly elected who are antsy and really pushing to learn what the timeline is going to be."

Stevens of Rochester Hills said she's already talking to colleagues about infrastructure and other policy goals. 

"It’s been an exciting and energizing week," Stevens said. "We have a very talented, diverse freshman class. We’re getting great feedback from one another. There’s already a lot of important and tremendous exchanges taking place on topics including climate change, gun safety, lowering the cost of prescription drugs, and addressing some of our nation’s infrastructure challenges."

This week, they stepped onto the House floor for the first time. Several freshmen snapped selfies with the dais behind them, including Tlaib and Slotkin. 

"I felt this tremendous amount of weight. Winning has been sinking in in phases. It hasn’t all sunk in at once. At that moment, it really sunk in that I’m really going to be in Congress," said Tlaib, who is one of the first two Muslim women elected to the House.

"And the instinct of wanting to protect my residents, wanting to make sure I do a phenomenal job for them. I get teary-eyed thinking about how they believe in me, and believe in the possibility of someone like me to serve, and I have to make sure I honor that every single time I walk onto this floor."

Tlaib pointed out the many framed portraits of male lawmakers hanging on the walls en route to the House floor. 

"I respect their service to our country, but just the thought that one day there will be a brown girl or black woman up there is also pretty spectacular," she said. 

Slotkin said her first experience on the House floor was moving, hearing about the giants of history who stood there before her. 

She paused to pose for photos with a few other women who, like her, come from a national service or veteran backgrounds, including Reps.-elect Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, and Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey. 

"It was very celebratory," Slotkin said. "You don’t get a whole lot of time to appreciate the awesomeness of what you’re undertaking, but it felt good."

Levin, Slotkin, Stevens and Tlaib reviewed the process for casting House votes with cards on the electronic system and then went outside and lined up with colleagues on the east side of the Capitol for their class photo. 

"I see the awe-inspiring responsibility we have to try to do the people’s business and uphold the incredible traditions of this institution," Levin said afterward. "It feels amazing to even be here."

The delegation's new members also met with Michigan's Democratic incumbents, brought together by their new dean, Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township. 

Freshmen also made appearances elsewhere in the city. Slotkin — a former CIA officer and Defense Department official — spoke Thursday at a symposium organized by the news site Defense One at the Newseum. 

She said new members with a national security background will be driving House hearings with the knowledge they bring from the executive branch.

"The aptitude of the incoming class on national security is probably higher than potentially any other class in history. And that’s a good place to start," Slotkin said. 

She described herself and the four other Democratic women with service or veteran backgrounds as "a bit of a clique," having held an ongoing Signal chat  for the last four months of their campaigns. 

"We are a cohort, for sure. We stick together, and we've even asked for adjacent offices, even if they have to be the crappiest offices out there," Slotkin said. 

Tlaib attended a rally for a "Green New Deal” at a park near the Capitol with fellow Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. 

The group of environmental activists, including a busload from Michigan, were urging House Democrats to put forward a climate plan and set up a select committee dedicated to climate change, she said. 

"I don’t want to disconnect myself from movement work. I will always be the activist. If it’s the 'activist-congresswoman,’ that’s fine," said Tlaib, a community organizer and social justice attorney. 

"I looked at them and said, I was you 15 years ago. Now, I’ll be a member of Congress. Everything that I worked on from the We Have a Right to Breathe Campaign to pushing back against corporate polluters — all of that comes with me. You don’t have to change anything about you."