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Op Eds

What I Learned at the Harvard IOP’s Congressional Orientation

By Richard Keller
Richard “Ric" Keller (R-Fla.), a Bipartisan Program for Newly Elected Members of Congress attendee in 2000, served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2001-2009.

As a former Congressman, I strongly encourage newly elected members of Congress to attend the bipartisan orientation program sponsored by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, which will be held virtually over four days beginning on Dec. 7. The program — formally titled the “Bipartisan Program for Newly Elected Members of Congress” — fosters bipartisan civility and matters now more than ever.

It’s the 20th anniversary of my attendance at the Kennedy School’s freshman orientation program, as I journeyed to Cambridge in December 2000 as a newly elected member of the House of Representatives from Florida. The country was divided following a bitterly contested presidential election that came down to a Supreme Court ruling and 537 votes in my own state. The American people were starving for civility and bipartisanship from their government.

Sound familiar?

Regrettably, there has been some controversy about the Harvard Kennedy School’s freshman orientation program over the years. For example, in 1994, all Republicans boycotted the event claiming that Harvard was too left-leaning. In 2018, some Democrats attending the orientation complained there were CEO speakers but not enough labor union speakers.

These complaints all missed the mark. They underestimated the value of a representative keeping an open mind to all sides. After all, would it kill a Republican to hear what a left-leaning Harvard professor has to say about improving access to higher education for poorer students? Would it be so bad for a Democrat to listen to what a right-leaning CEO has to say about how to create more jobs in the private sector?

The program I attended in 2000 attracted a broad bipartisan group of new members from Florida to California, many of whom have since become well-known. The attendees included the then-youngest member of Congress Adam H. Putnam (R-Fla.), future Trump Impeachment Manager Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), future Majority Leader Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.), and future Senators Jeffry L. Flake (R-Ariz.), and Mark S. Kirk (R-Ill.). I made good use of my time at Harvard in the midst of such good company.

For example, I drafted my first piece of bipartisan legislation at the Kennedy School’s orientation. I used my spare minutes between panels writing up a bill to expand Pell Grants, which I filed my first day in Congress. President George W. Bush later gave me the pen he used to sign my Pell Grant legislation into law, and I was promoted to Chairman of the House Higher Education subcommittee.

Over four days, we received policy briefings from prominent experts, including Cabinet secretaries, senior White House aides, business leaders, and Harvard faculty on a wide variety of topics — including the federal budget, foreign policy, and education reform — to help us hit the ground running when we arrived in Washington.

At Harvard, panel discussion topics included relations between Congress and the White House and speakers like David R. Gergen (a White House adviser for Presidents Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, and Richard Nixon), Kenneth M. Duberstein (Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff), and Anne L. Wexler (an assistant to Jimmy Carter).

Wexler gave particularly sage advice. “Always remember that in Washington there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies,” she said. “Civility is the watchword.” As someone who served eight years in Congress, I can tell you that she was correct.

For me, the most helpful practical advice came from a Harvard faculty member who talked to us about coping with stress. He suggested we do one small habit every day to bring a sense of stability and accomplishment to our crazy lives. So I took a short jog every morning at 6 a.m. no matter where I was, including Alaska, D.C., Florida, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. And he was right. The daily habit made my chaotic life feel more stable, more structured, and less stressful.

The 1994 GOP members who boycotted might have learned a thing or two from Harvard professors. Who knows? I sure did.

But perhaps the greatest benefit of the Harvard program was getting to know my new colleagues in a relaxed setting — Republican Jeff Flake and Democrat Adam Schiff come to mind as colleagues I first met at Harvard. Those bipartisan friendships endured.

During these crazy times, bipartisanship matters more than ever. I hope that the newly-elected members of Congress will give civility a chance. The Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics is doing its part.

Richard “Ric" Keller (R-Fla.), a Bipartisan Program for Newly Elected Members of Congress attendee in 2000, served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2001-2009.

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