Freshman Members of Congress Matter More Today Than Ever
by Donald R. Wolfensberger
New Members of Congress may aspire to be more bipartisan in their relationships and legislative projects, but they are immediately herded into their respective party camps upon arriving at freshman orientation and impressed with what team they are on.
At the same time, in recent years they are rewarded sooner by their leaders with choice committee assignments and other perquisites both to hold their loyalty and get them reelected. Their votes count more than ever with narrow party majorities in both the House and Senate. This means that the leadership must work hard to keep individuals and small factions from straying too far off the reservation and jeopardizing the success of the party's legislative agenda.
Those were some of the conclusions drawn from the Congress Project Seminar, "The Freshman Experience: Ideals, Impressions, and Influences," held at the Wilson Center on November 17, 2000. Featured panelists included former Representative Tom Downey (D-NY) from the famous Class of 1974's "Watergate Babies," and Representative Roger Wicker (R-MS), the first president of the Class of 1994's "Republican Revolutionaries."
Burdett Loomis, a political scientist from the University of Kansas presented a paper comparing the classes of 1974 and 1994. He found the earlier class to be less a community than the more recent class, primarily because it was more diverse and less committed to an overarching national policy goal. Both classes, however, shook up the system in their own ways. The 1974 class replaced four committee chairmen and effectively dismantled the dominance chairmen had held over the House for several decades. The 1994 Class also helped spur significant institutional reforms in the House and pushed for a balanced budget and smaller government.
Panelist Janet Hook, congressional correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, shared some of her observations on the Class of 2000 as they arrived in Washington this week for freshman orientation. "My impression is that this class has a bumper crop of raging moderates," she said. A very high percentage of them have previous legislative experience which gives them an added advantage. However, as much as they may want to talk to reporters about their elections and goals in Congress, "the only thing the press seems to be asking them about this week is the Florida presidential election count."
Hook added that most reporters tend to ignore junior members and gravitate to the elected leaders and committee chairs who hold the real power. It is difficult for the new members to distinguish themselves with the press, she said, unless they find a hot issue and stick with it.
Downey and Wicker both agreed that junior members can still make a difference in the policy process in Congress without having to wait to become committee or subcommittee chairmen. "Hard work, diligence, and expertise are still recognized and rewarded by other members," said Downey. "Smart first-termers can still make a modest contribution," added Wicker. Downey added, however, that weekly visits to the home district and the increased pressures of fundraising detracted some from committee and floor preparation and deliberations.
Both members agreed that the best way to break out of the snare of intense partisanship is to find ways to get to know members of the other party on a more personal basis, such as joining the gym or becoming involved in the weekly prayer breakfasts. Another way to form lasting ties across party lines is to travel abroad as part of a congressional oversight delegation.
- "The Freshman Experience in Congress: Have Things Changed Much over Time?," Introductory essay by Donald R. Wolfensberger
- "Coming into the Country: How First-Term Members Enter the House" by Burdett Loomis (paper prepared for this seminar) PDF (32 pages, 173 KB)
- "Size of House and Senate Freshman Classes, 83rd-108th Congresses (1953-2003)" (table)