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From The Halls of Congress: Orientation For A New Member

Congressman-elect Eric Swalwell describes his week of orientation at the House of Representatives

 

A 2,400 Mile Journey Begins With the First Step

"Welcome to Washington-Dulles International Airport" read the first sign I saw as I stepped off the plane and into the terminal on Monday evening.

After 14 months of endless campaigning, which included knocking on 100,000 doors with our volunteers, calling thousands of homes, I had finally arrived in Washington, D.C.

The city I talked about at more than 30 homes to parties ranging in size from three people to 30.

A city I once interned in 11 years earlier and asked the voters to return me to so they can have better representation.

The voters put their faith in me and I couldn't help but feel the weight of their hopes and dreams -- and my responsibility to serve them -- as my taxi cab approached the Capitol.

I was ready to serve. But first, I had a lot to learn.

New Member Orientation

Members of Congress are elected every two years to serve in the "People's House."  And every two years, a "Freshman Class" arrives in Washington, determined to deliver on the issues and platform they presented to the voters in hard-fought campaigns.

To prepare new members of Congress, the Committee on House Administration hosts New Member Orientation, a two-week orientation program to teach the ropes of Congress.

Members of Congress learn everything from how to put an office together, how to hire staff, how the legislative process works, how to effectively communicate with your constituents, and much more.

I decided that the decisions I would make during orientation -- on staffing, office setup, constituent communication -- would be guided by my three policy priorities: 1) enabling local "Made in America" opportunities 2) supporting and promoting green energy policies and 3) working to support immigration policy that keeps us safe while providing a road map to opportunity for working families.

Having these goals in mind assisted me greatly in the dozens of decisions that would have to be made throughout the week.

A Large, Diverse Class

My class, the 113th Congress, has 86 members.  It's one of the largest classes ever and certainly the most diverse.

The force of our classes size makes the 113th Congress the youngest, least-experienced Congress ever.  I do not see this as a liability but rather an opportunity to build new partnerships and friendships and finally get something done in Congress.

For example, two members I got to know well represent a new generation in Congress: Tulsi Gabbard, 31, of Hawaii and Beto O'Rourke, 39, of El Paso.

We each ran to be problem-solvers and do our part to end the gridlock.  I was encouraged talking with them to hear their constituents, just like the good people of the 15th congressional district, are fed up with Congress and are ready for some action.

On Thursday, the class assembled on the steps at the back of the Capitol for our class photo.  Everyone was filled with excitement.  It was also the first time I fully appreciated the size and scale of our class and the potential for us to lead the country forward.

Returning to the Capitol

Eleven years ago, I interned for Rep. Ellen Tauscher.  I was there the summer of 2001 and stayed on for the fall.

I was on my way to work on the morning of Sept. 11, when I was told to turn around as a plane was possibly headed for the Capitol.

I was there for the Anthrax scares, where I would routinely go to the House medical clinic for a check-up because of the volume of mail I handled as an intern.

My internship ended later that winter.  I left Capitol Hill at a dark moment in our country's history and at a time when Capitol Hill was locked down and no longer the open, accessible place I started my internship.

I return at a time of great hope and optimism.  Although Congress' approval rating is below 10 percent, the public expects this new, large class to change course.

On Tuesday evening, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer led the freshmen on a tour of the Capitol.  It was a tour I knew well and had given dozens of times as an intern.

I always enjoyed watching others give the tour, to learn something new and observe a different style of telling a story.  As we moved around the Capitol, I was taken to familiar spot after familiar spot.  And it felt very similar to my internship days.

But suddenly, my familiarity turned to excitement as Minority Whip Hoyer started taking us to places I was never allowed to go as an Intern.  The Senate Floor.  The House Floor.  The Speaker's Lobby.

It was at that moment that the anxiety of the campaign finally passed, a feeling of euphoria took over and I finally realized: I have arrived. And this is where I belong if I am going to help the people from California's 15th congressional district.

(Power) Pointed Discussions & Hire Learning

In between the receptions and mixers to meet new members, we attended many orientation sessions.  Some of them were painstakingly detailed, like the session on the approval process -- involving multiple people and agencies -- for sending out mail to constituents. These rules, I sense, were often made after unfortunate abuses by members, leaving no alternative but ballooning bureaucracy.

Other sessions were much needed, like the ethics briefing on what we may accept and not accept. Constituents may send us cookies but nothing with more than "nominal value."  Well, they don't know our constituents' cooking, which is a heckuva lot more than "nominal value."  But if we do good work for you, we like chocolate chip and peanut butter cookies!

I spent a great deal of time interviewing people to be my chief of staff, the top position in a congressional office.

Much of the orientation centers on teaching you what to look for in setting up an office. The chief of staff is responsible for managing the office, from making sure constituent services are provided to keeping me briefed and advised on legislative matters.  I want a chief of staff who knows that my priority is serving our constituents in a responsive and thoughtful manner that reflects our goals for the district.

By the end of the week, I hired a stellar candidate who will bring vision, experience and a calling to serve to the people of the district. I look forward to announcing our chief of staff very soon!

There are still more than a dozen positions to fill and I am trying to be deliberate but hire in a manner that reflects my priority of being ready to serve on Day One.

I also hope that technology, e.g., using video-conferencing and telecommunication can reduce staffing costs and make us more accessible to the people who live in CA-15.

From Serving Members of Congress Gym Towels in the Morning and Meals in the Evening to Serving with them in the Halls of Congress

For Friday's lunch, I went to Tortilla Coast, where I worked as a restaurant server while working as an unpaid intern in 2001.

Being so close to Capitol Hill, I often served members of Congress.  I learned early on that to get the best tips, I needed to greet members by name.  So on my train ride to work in the morning, I would study the Congressional Pictorial Directory.  It worked and the tips helped pay my rent and expenses.

To further supplement my income, I worked from 5:30 a.m. to about 8:30 a.m. on Capitol Hill at Washington Sports Club.  I worked the front desk, where I would greet gym-goers, checking them in and giving them gym towels.

Many times, this included members of Congress.  I fondly remember often serving towels to the ranking member of the House Committee on Ways and Means, Sandy Levin and his brother Sen. Carl Levin, who were in every morning playing squash.

On Wednesday evening, I had dinner in Statuary Hall in the Capitol, and had the honor of sitting next to Rep. Levin.  I told him this story and he cracked one of his trademark smiles and gave me a lot of good advice on what to do now that I'm serving with him and no longer serving him.  "Be intense, but not tense."

Washington, D.C., is a beautiful city that is a living history of our country's story. It is home to some of the smartest, hardest-working, dedicated public servants you'll ever meet.

But it is also a place that can suck you in and never release you to where you came from.  I look forward to working with my new colleagues, both Democratic and Republican. I will use these early, formative orientation days as opportunities to forge new friendships and working relationships.

There is much I can learn, especially from members of Congress from the California Bay Area Delegation, who know our local issues and how to be effective in Congress.

But Washington, D.C., is not my home.  It's my office.  It's where I go to work for you, after listening to you at home. The airplane ride between San Francisco and Washington is not comfortable.  But it most be done. As often as possible.

Otherwise, I'll become what I ran against and the loser is not the candidate who is voted out, but the constituents who need an advocate who lives in the district and works for them in Washington.

Check back here for part two of my New Member Orientation blog.  Part Two begins Monday, Nov. 26, and concludes, Saturday, Nov. 30.  Part three is outside of Washington, D.C., hosted by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

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Ken Martin November 20, 2012 at 05:51 AM
Go get'em, Eric. I'm glad there are more younger people becoming our representatives. I'm sure that there are more "Pete Stark" dinosaurs there that need to be replaced.

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