Incoming Michigan lawmakers learn ropes at Capitol Hill orientation

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Michigan's two newly elected lawmakers arrived on Capitol Hill for orientation in recent days as they prepare to join the next Congress in January.

Due to the pandemic, this year's events look a bit different to allow for health screenings and social distancing, but Michigan U.S. Reps.-elect Peter Meijer and Lisa McClain said they're still meeting dozens of new colleagues from around the country and comparing notes from election season. 

The Republican pair won't get sworn into office until January, but they're being schooled in how to organize their offices and hire staff. They're also receiving ethics and security briefings, getting their official photos taken and learning the procedure for casting votes on the House floor.

Theirs is one of the youngest incoming freshman classes in history. Meijer is among five incoming members who were all born in 1988, he said. But that bunch isn't the youngest.

Newly elected members of the Congress participate in an orientation on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Nov. 13, 2020.

"I thought that I would be a young little vanguard and taking office at the age of 32. Madison Cawthorn showed me up by seven years," Meijer joked about his new Republican colleague from North Carolina, age 25. 

Meijer of Grand Rapids Township won election this month over Democrat Hillary Scholten to succeed retiring Libertarian U.S. Rep. Justin Amash in representing the Grand Rapids area.

McClain, 54, will succeed retiring GOP Rep. Paul Mitchell of Dryden to represent the a heavily Republican district covering northern Macomb County and the Thumb counties of St. Clair, Huron, Tuscola, Sanilac and Lapeer.

McClain of Bruce Township will become the first Republican woman from Michigan to hold a seat in Congress since 2016, when then-U.S. Rep. Candice Miller of Harrison Township retired and was elected the Macomb County Public Works commissioner.

The 117th Congress will have a record crop of GOP women, doubling their numbers in the U.S. House from 13 currently to at least 26, with some races still to be called.

McClain said she's met a few of her fellow incoming Republican female colleagues and "we have a lot of the same visions — a lot of the same traditional American values."

McClain has been awed by the welcome that she and others received from current House members and staffers, she said.

"The biggest surprise — a positive surprise — was how willing people are to include you, mentor you, guide you," McClain said.

"I had visions of coming in like a freshman in high school — like, 'Ugh here's the freshmen' — and it was not like that, at all. And just the just the genuine willingness of people to work together was very, very refreshing."

One of the most impressive moments for McClain was the day leaders escorted the newbies onto the House floor to review the process for casting votes with cards on the electronic system.

"That was when it really hit me, when they took us to the House floor. It was surreal. It was like, oh, here we are," McClain said. "It's a true honor."

Despite almost everyone being masked during social and informational sessions, Meijer said the new members are learning to recognize one another and their staffers. 

"I definitely think we're getting used to seeing each other with masks on and, and just going off of the identifying details that are available," he said. "It also helps them some people are wearing their campaign masks."

U.S. Rep.-elect Lisa McClain, R-Bruce Township, speaks at a Sterling Heights campaign event in August 2020.

The agenda this week included caucus gatherings, training on budget and disclosure rules, and guidance for handling constituent requests. 

When the freshmen return after Thanksgiving, House officers will hold a lottery for each incoming lawmaker to pick their new Washington office space. The new members are also lobbying for their preferred committee assignments. 

"There's a bit of politics behind it, but certainly I'm looking at what committees will be able to best represent the 3rd District in west Michigan," said Meijer, mentioning the transportation and infrastructure panel. 

A U.S. Army veteran, Meijer also has interest in panels related to national defense, though he acknowledged those assignments often go to more senior lawmakers. McClain is eyeing the Financial Services Committee given her career in financial advising, but, again, senior members tend to claim that A-list assignment when there's an opening.

Meijer also said he has interest in joining the Bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus and the For Country Caucus, a bipartisan group of military veterans. 

Some of the best advice he'd heard during the week was to stay focused on serving his district and constituents. Several lawmakers also told him that if he's ever not overcome by the sight of the U.S. Capitol as he's leaving at night, it's time to wrap it up.

U.S. Rep.-elect Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids Township, and his wife Gabriella speak to the media on Election Night, Nov. 3, 2020.

"If you're not just overcome with the sheer responsibility and heritage and legacy that you're there to uphold, if that ever fails to hit you and you become numb to that, just leave," Meijer said. 

"Make sure that kind of weight is always felt, and that's there's something very awesome and sort of the truest sense about that."