The 110th Congress will welcome dozens of new members into its ranks on January 4th. Let the fundraising begin.
For new members of Congress, freshman year used to be about making friends. These days, it's about making money. Friends are okay. Just as long as they're from your own party.
Congress has grown so partisan that months before they are sworn in, new members eschew the Committee on House Administration's two-day freshman orientation for their own party's seminar. That same weekend, members-elect usually schedule their first Washington, D.C., fundraisers. The pressures on a freshman congressman can be challenging, say outgoing members and congressional observers.
After 24 years in office, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-New York) says he's leaving Congress, where he had previously spent 18 years as a staffer, with the hope that the institution will return to its former ways. "I am leaving at a time when there has never been a higher degree of partisanship and a lower level of tolerance for another point of view.
That does not serve the country and the institution well. I hope we will come back to the old way of trying to sort things out together and work toward compromise."
"Some people think your first loyalty is the party. That's wrong," says Boehlert, who chairs the House Science Committee. "The first priority is the people who elected you—and they're not all one party or of one mind. I am convinced that there are some young members who don't know someone else on the other side of the aisle—Republicans and Democrats. To know someone is to know what their family is like, what they're like, and what their interests are. I'm sure there are a lot of people who don't know somebody on the other side."
Boehlert isn't alone. Recalls Rep. Martin Olav Sabo (D-Minnesota), who is retiring after serving nine terms, "It was partisan when I started, but it didn't have the edge as it does today." Bipartisanship wasn't encouraged, he says, but it wasn't discouraged. Most of Sabo's best friends in Congress overlooked party lines and tended to be from his freshman class, something that doesn't happen much anymore, he says.
Joel Hefley (R-Colorado), who is retiring after 10 terms, says the partisanship is worst at the top, where party leaders constantly pressure members to raise campaign cash. "This was a very partisan place when I came in, but at the top, it's become more partisan," he says. There's a whole lot more emphasis with raising money. It used to be that the party supported the candidate. Now, the candidate supports the party. You buy your position. You want a committee assignment or a chairmanship; you have to give to the party."
The outspoken congressman calls the cash-for-committee practice a scandal, and says that freshmen used to be able to work their way into chairmanships. "Now, my advice is, if you want
to be a chairman, you better become a good fundraiser. You're going to have to buy your spot," Hefley says.
Twenty-four years ago, as a freshman, Major Owens (D-New York) says he felt little pressure to contribute to his party's fundraising efforts. "Now, the pressure is 1,000 times greater," he says. "So much money is required and the stakes are so high. It's beyond getting re-elected. It's about taking back the House." Worse yet, says Owens, fund-raising has be-come a way for members to judge their peers. "It's not how much you've raised for yourself, but how much you raised for the general pot," he says.
"I didn't follow that advice very closely," Owens says. "As a result, I have never had enough money raised or kept the campaign apparatus in place. The workings of Congress fascinate me more than calling donors and keeping my war chest in place." Because his campaign coffers never overflowed, he says, opponents judged him as being a weak candidate, regardless of his legislative activities.
Most freshman have their first fundraiser before they take the oath of office, says congressional expert John Fortier of the American Enterprise Institute, and those from not-too-safe districts often get plum committee assignments so that they can attract even more money. The road to leader-ship posts is easy for freshmen than in years past, he says, but it's often paved with cash.
Fortier says the new freshman class, with the pressure of fund raising in a narrowly divided Congress, will likely lead to further partisanship. "We are much more polarized than we were and we are likely to be more polarized. If Democrats take over the House, they will be knocking off moderate Republicans in swing districts. As a result, you probably will see a movement toward fewer moderates again."
The Freshman Class '06
Rutgers University's Ross K. Baker says the number of potential Democratic freshmen with military backgrounds and strong views against to the war in Iraq will likely add to the partisanship. "I certainly don't see newly elected members softening their tone," says Baker. "Right now, with the polarization Congress, the only change by new people would be to intensify that polarization."
When organized, freshmen can play a major role in shaping public policy. In 1965, the 58 freshman Democrats from non-Southern states routinely voted as a bloc to support President Lyndon Johnson's social policy agenda and were the difference in helping the administration pass key Medicare and housing measures. Thirty years later, the Newt Gingrich-led Republic Revolution brought 73 new Republicans to the House of Representatives and votes on their leader's "Contract with America" promises for tax cuts, a balanced budget amendment and welfare programs.
Don't expect a similar group this year. "Those classes are few and far between," says congressional expert Sarah Binder, also pointing to the "Watergate Babies" of the 1974 elections. For it to happen, the George Washington University professor says the freshman class must be significant in size. This year, according to most pundits, there are less
than 50 competitive House races. But even if freshmen fill the halls, they will quickly be pulled into the offices of party leaders and diminish their ability to build an institutional class, Binder says.
Once they arrive, though, some freshman priorities will remain as they've always been. Often vulnerable during their first re-election campaigns, Binder says that to succeed, freshmen need to find a niche during their first two years, get their feet on the ground, and stay in contact with constituents. "If you're going to have a career, it's that sophomore surge. House elections turn on local issues and freshmen try to make themselves known by carving out a niche," she says. To earn a second stint, Binder says freshmen shouldn't take controversial stances or cast controversial votes.
Outgoing members hope the incoming class will also think about Congress as a social institution - not just a political one.
Offers Boehlert, "Make sure your feet are on the ground, but also do a couple of things. Make a conscious attempt to get to know as many people as possible and reach across the aisle. Second, as soon as possible, go on a congressional delegation trip. Don't expect to sit in your office and learn about the world from the striped-pants set of the State Department. You have to go out and talk to people—and not just top people. Talk to the people in the field."
Don't forget your family—reach across the aisle
"Then and now, pick out people who are gifted in certain areas," says Hefley. "Some people listen to me about defense. I pay attention to what [Committee on Education and the Workforce Chairman] Buck McKeon says about education. Pick out those people you have confidence in because people aren't smart in all areas, although some think they are. Like Sheila Jackson Lee," he says, referring to the Texas congresswoman often ridiculed by Republicans for her media appearances. Hefley also suggests that freshmen remember their first priority — family. "If you leave your family at home, you've got to get back there. Your kids need you at their ballgames. When your back there, spend time with them and don't let your staff schedule all of your time."
Owens says new members should look across the aisle if they want to effectively change government. "In terms of reform and challenging the partisanship, you may get something going," he says. "If you expect to stay 10 or 15 years, it's worth using your energy to get something moving in that direction although that means you may have to forego some relationships with folks in your own party."
"They should take the job seriously and not take themselves too seriously," says Sabo. "They should take advantage of getting to know members socially. As a new member, you have more freedom. Go to a variety of meetings and take advantage of them. And if they speak, they should forget the campaign slogans and just speak like they know the issues."
About Howard M. Unger
Howard M. Unger earned his Master's Degree from the University of Maryland's School of Public Policy. He is currently a freelance journalist in New York City.