That crashing sound you hear emanating from Washington early next year will be the visions, expectations and egos of the new freshman class of the 116th Congress.
Having been part of the Washington political scene for years, I have witnessed the arrival of several classes of these legislative newbies. They appear on the steps of Capitol filled with ambition and determination. Movies like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” are on endless loop in the subcortex of their brains.
Remember, they have just finished campaigns where they have made the most exuberant promises of what they will do – what they will achieve – when sitting in the hallowed chamber. For months, they have been fawned over by adoring fans and their every utterance the topic of news reports. They have appeared before innumerable civic, fraternal, business and social groups – and had been teleported into the homes of hundreds of thousands of voters via radio and television. For them, the word represented by the “V” in VIP is in all caps.
They may expect to see the figurative red carpets rolled out as they arrive, but that is not what they will experience.
In the social and political pecking order of the nation’s capital, a freshman congressperson is among the lowest ranking. Oh sure. There are exceptions. Those from famous families, those who had previous fame in other fields – sports or entertainment — and those with more than a small fortune will get greater attention at the onset, but for the run-of-the-mill congressperson-elect it is more like being a new army recruit showing up for induction into Texas’ inappropriately named Fort Bliss.
In some ways, it is a surreal experience because they will live among the most famous and powerful political figures in America. They will see them in the hallways, on the streets and in the restaurants. Yet, there will be an almost impermeable invisible social wall that separates the political classes.
They will quickly learn that despite all those things they sincerely promised the folks back home that they would do once they get sworn in, they will have zero ability to do any of it. In their orientation, they will be subtly advised that if they behave like good little freshman, they can look forward to rising up the social scale after a few terms.
And what about those important committee assignments? Most freshmen will not be sitting on those key committees you hear about in the news every day. They will be assigned to obscure subcommittees where the work is … well … boring and mundane. How about spending your first term on the Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research? It actually sounds more interesting than it is.
Most freshman legislators sit silently on the proverbial back bench while the more senior leaders do all the work. All the bills the newbies thought they were going to introduce and enact will have to wait. The job of the freshman legislator is to vote – mostly as their party leadership “suggests.” There will not be many, if any, opportunities to rise to address their fellow members of Congress. Although there will be time to “address” the empty chamber to produce video clips for back home consumption and future political commercials.
Even if they are so bold as to propose a piece of legislation, it will die in committee. They can hop on the serious legislation advanced by the major players — as one of the legion of “co-sponsors” — but initiating a bill is a no-no. Virtually any bill that a freshman legislator puts into the “hopper,” will go to a committee where it will be assigned to the dark hole, where such legislation dies unceremoniously.
If a precocious legislator wanted to get his or her bill moved in committee, he or she could request a meeting with the chairman of the committee to which the bill has been assigned. Unfortunately, most such requests are denied. And if one of these new legislators wanted to meet with Speaker Pelosi – assuming she is restored to that post – the request would be denied. There is too much serious business – and too many more important people with which to deal – than to spend time with the lowly freshmen.
Members of the freshman class will realize their status when it comes to office assignments. If they think that every member of the House has one of those massive offices you see in the movies, they are in for a rude awakening. They will not even be housed in the same buildings with the upper echelon legislators. One has to move up the legislative ladder over a number of election cycles to move up from the Longworth to the Cannon to the Rayburn House office buildings – and only the top leadership will have offices in the Capitol Building, itself.
Then there are all those fabled fabulous social events – White House receptions, embassy parties, diplomatic balls, grand holiday events, etc. etc. etc. There are not enough “etc.” to reflect the number of such events. Freshmen legislators will not find invitations to those events in their mailboxes. They will be lucky to be invited to one of those ubiquitous lobbyist-sponsored cocktail parties at the Hilton hotel.
Not only are the freshman House members competing for attention with their own leadership, they are outranked by scores of senators, Cabinet officials, agency heads, Supreme Court justices, White House aides, diplomats, visiting heads-of-state and on the top perch, the President of the United States.
The realization of political and social impotency will hit hardest on those with the greatest arrogance and the biggest egos – those who believe that their election was the granting of some sort of grand entitlement. In my days in Washington, it was referred to as “freshman depression.”
That’s brings to mind the fiery Alexandra Ocasia-Cortez – who is already making waves by complaining about what she perceives as a lack of respect for her new title. While she sees herself as a leader in a movement that is entitled to “occupy” all that it sees and surveys – and which is currently occupying the Democratic Party — she is more likely to earn the title of “least effective legislator” of the freshman class. The political establishment does not admire “attitude” in its freshmen legislators. And Joining a group of anti-Pelosi demonstrators outside the office of future-Speaker, and threatening to “primary” her less radical Democrat colleagues, was not the best way to achieve success, or anything else, in Congress.
Like the Remora fish that attaches to the much larger sharks, freshman legislators can take the ride, but they are not going to pick the direction. That is for bigger fish than them.
So. There ’tis.