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New members of Congress arrive in Washington to be schooled in its ways

By David A. Fahrenthold and Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 16, 2010; C01

This week, Morgan Griffith finally went to Congress.

On the way, he went to Wendy's.

Griffith, a newly elected Republican representative from Virginia, hit the drive-through for lunch at the end of a long drive from Salem, Va., on Sunday. He rolled into the official hotel for Congressional freshmen with a to-go cup of iced tea, three kids and a luggage cart stuffed with wrinkled dress shirts, plastic bags from Nordstrom Rack and kids' backpacks.

"What does Daddy do?" Griffith's wife, Hilary, asked son Starke, 3, while they waited for Morgan Griffith to be checked in.

"Vote!" Starke said.

As if it were that simple. Instead, the roughly 100 members of a closely watched class of first-year legislators arrived to find a complicated set of assignments -- ones for which the official congressional orientation would be of little help.

They are supposed to learn Washington's rules but not give in to its customs. And they are somehow supposed to fight the capital's entrenched interests -- at a time when those interests are already fighting over them.

Maybe that was the reason that the giddy, getting-to-know-you phase of this week's freshman orientation seemed to last less than 24 hours.

"There's going to be a lot more eyes on you," said Scott Tipton (R-Colo.), a businessman who ousted a Democratic incumbent with tea party backing. He said the Republican class of 1994 had it easy: Now, his every move can be tracked with Twitter, Facebook and other Internet tools. "This freshman class, unlike every other, will be under the microscope, you know. Criticized."

The freshmen were welcomed to Washington in one of Washington's least welcoming places: empty, lifeless L'Enfant Plaza -- which, on a Sunday afternoon, is a little slice of Pyongyang. They rolled in with their suitcases and headed for a room off the lobby of the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel. "New Member Orientation," the sign said.

Some freshmen arrived wearing totems of their winning campaigns, like college students still sporting high school letter jackets.

Rep.-elect Allen West (R-Fla.), a retired Army lieutenant colonel, wore parachutist insignia on his lapel. Rep.-elect Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) wore one of her fabulous hats: a black cowboy hat covered in sequins (she tried to wear another large hat in her official Congressional ID photo, but Capitol officials wouldn't allow it).

After checking in, the members went upstairs to get outfitted.

"Mr. Griffith, go down here for your ID, computer and smartphone," an attendant told Morgan Griffith.

"Do I want a smartphone?" Griffith asked. Representatives had a choice of BlackBerry or iPhone, pre-loaded with an app that would alert them when it was time to vote.

For a brief few minutes, they were who they said they were: regular folks with a new, enormous responsibility. (In January, they'll be sworn in.)

"We sat down with a Democrat," said Martha Brooks, the wife of Morris "Mo" Brooks (R-Ala.). That was an unexpected encounter in a class dominated by the GOP. The Democrat's name? "Bill from Massachusetts," she said -- apparently Rep.-elect William Keating (D-Mass.). "Lovely. Lovely," Brooks said.

"Mo and I look at each other a couple of times a day and say, you know, 'Is this really real? Are you really going to be a congressman?' " she said.

It was, and he is: She already had a tote bag with a Capitol monogram and a four-inch thick binder, the week's orientation textbook that covered everything from ethics rules and hiring a staff to using the franking privilege. "You just gotta remember, you're the exact same person you were before," she said.

The new legislators talked about hiring staff -- some even interviewed potential staffers in the lobby. Others worried about housing. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.) said he'd decided to save money by sleeping on his office couch. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.) said he'd asked around about that idea.

Apparently, it weirds people out.

"It makes the staff in the office uncomfortable," he said later. "They work late at night, and you have the member walking around in his pajamas."

'A networking session'

On Sunday, the vibe in the hotel lobby was low-key enough that, in a room full of politicians, only one new legislator seemed to be acting like one. Todd Young (R-Ind.), a square-jawed former Marine and prosecutor, was seeking out other new members.

"We've got such a great opportunity here," he told one.

"It's been a networking session, more than anything else," Young said of his brief time in Washington, scanning the lobby as he spoke. He said he was antsy to get started balancing the budget, cutting spending and "restoring faith in Congress."

But politics, already, was all around them.

In the morning, conservative members could choose from three events designed to indoctrinate them. There was one at the Republican establishment hangout, the Capitol Hill Club. There was another hosted by the conservative Claremont Institute. And another, with tea party hero Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), was hosted by a group called ConstitutionalCongress.org.

At night, the band of freshmen was divided up by party and escorted up Independence Avenue to Capitol Hill. The Republicans unloaded on the east plaza, walking hand in hand with their spouses into the Capitol for dinner. There, at Statuary Hall, an orchestra and round tables awaited them. Printed color copies of the "Pledge to America" and booklet titled "Pillars of the New Majority" were placed over the china plates.

But first, the couples paused to marvel at the dome, lit by a half-moon, with an American flag flapping in the crisp November air.

A few snapped pictures.

"It was quite a deal," said Rep.-elect Billy Long (R-Mo.), an auctioneer who said he had never been to the Capitol. "I couldn't find words to describe it."

Inside the Capitol, Rachel Campos-Duffy -- the wife of Rep.-elect Sean Duffy (R-Wis.), who met him after both appeared on different seasons of MTV's "The Real World" -- snuck away from the festivities. Inside a restroom, she breast-fed newborn daughter Maria Victoria Duffy, the youngest of six children.

And then she tweeted about it. "Baby eats first," she wrote.

Washington establishment

But, if the freshmen were freshmen on Sunday, by Monday, they were acting like members of Congress. They arrived for the official orientation events in sharp suits and meaningful lapel pins (American flags, American flags crossed with state flags, eagles), the uniform of the Washington establishment.

Some of them said that, even before their official ID photos were taken, they had been overloaded by e-mails and phone calls from tea party supporters. It was a role reversal: A few weeks before, voter disgust with the establishment had been a wind at the backs of many candidates.

Now that they were the establishment -- or at least the establishment-elect -- it felt a little more like a storm.

"My BlackBerry has been blown up in the past few days" as tea partiers urged him to attend the Claremont Institute event, said Steve Womack (R-Ark.). He went.

"Give us a few weeks, and we'll find out where the restrooms are," Womack said. "And we'll start making some serious decisions."

But, on Monday afternoon, some freshmen went out to double down. In front of a crowd of tea party supporters, they repeated the kinds of pledges that they'd made on the campaign trail -- promising, again, to do the kinds of things that freshmen legislators usually can't.

Rep.-elect Frank Guinta (R-N.H.) said: "This infamous freshman class will not let you down. We will join with you. We feel you with us and among us. We will not let you down. We will make sure that we cut borrowing, that we cut spending, that we cut taxes, that we make sure we get rid of Obamacare, that we make sure your voices are heard now and forever."

The crowd chanted back: "That's right! . . . That's right! . . . We're watching!"

Inside the Capitol complex Monday, Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) -- a new representative who is angling for a leadership post among freshmen -- was swarmed by a crowd of about 24 journalists.

"For the next two years, we'll try to be as effective as possible," Noem said.

Noem's husband, Bryon, stood off to the side, watching reporters cluster around his wife.

"I'm going to take a picture of this," he said, holding out his BlackBerry. "This is insane."

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