Over the weekend, newly elected members of the House of Representatives converged on the Kennedy School of Government (KSG) to take part in the traditional four-day orientation hosted by the Institute of Politics.
The conference, which ran from Wednesday to Saturday, included a host of speakers relating to different topics of representatives’ day-to-day lives, including experts on the media, the White House, policymaking and the workings of Congress itself.
Among the two dozen “freshmen” members of Congress were KSG alumni Christopher Van Hollen and Katherine Harris, the former Florida secretary of state who came to national prominence for her role in the presidential election controversy in 2000.
All but one meeting, on White House-Congressional relations, were closed to the press and public.
At that event, C-SPAN brought camera crews and reporters from the Associated Press and The New York Times attended.
Panelists representing the congressional role in affecting presidential decisions included Susan Hirschmann, former chief of staff for Majority Whip Rep. Tom Delay (R-Texas) and Steve Elmendorf, chief of staff for former Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.).
The panelists discussing the White House side of the issue were Professor of Business and Government Roger Porter and KSG Professor David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership. Combining their experience, Porter and Gergen have worked in five administrations beginning with the Ford White House.
All panelists advised the new representatives not to hesitate in reaching out to the White House for help and went through mock scenarios where members of Congress are forced to pick between allegiance to their leadership and to their constituencies.
Panelists shared other facets of their experience with the incoming lawmakers. Often, the meeting turned into a lecture on people skills, with Elmendorf advising the representatives to “never mislead people” and Hirschmann telling attendees “to do your homework.”
IOP Director Daniel R. Glickman, a former representative himself who attended the orientation in 1976, served as moderator of the event.
After other speakers conveyed the image of the White House as a powerful institution, he reminded the audience of the Constitution and said “Article I is the Congress, not the President.”
Glickman and others also hinted at the political vulnerability of new members of Congress.
“Pursue a subterranean agenda that real people care about,” Glickman said.
Hirschmann reiterated the point, noting that if representatives have legislative achievements in popular areas of interest, such as food or airline safety, they can rise in rank quickly in the House.
The conference drew other notable speakers as well, including Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers, KSG Dean Joseph S. Nye, a few private sector economists and about a dozen members of Congress.
The upcoming Congress’ freshmen class is the largest since the “Republican Revolution” of 1994.