"GENTLEMEN, WELCOME TO CONGRESS"
Friendship Begins with Trust
The early days of the 112th Congress felt exciting and occasionally chaotic. Our "freshman orientation" began in late November 2010, after the new members of Congress were elected but before our swearing-in in January. We stayed in a hotel in Washington, DC, and attended meetings, seminars, and panels to learn about the inner workings of government in general and Congress in particular. Current members of Congress taught or facilitated many of the classes, and they offered guidance on everything—including how to structure your office, how to handle travel to and from your district, and how to stay within your office budget.
There were lots of instructions about the procedures governing the floor of the House and all committee work, including strict floor-of-the-House rules about when we could talk about legislative matters, how long we could talk, and even what we could talk about. We had to select an office within one of the three House office buildings and hire the women and men who would work with us in our offices. For those of us who had never served in any legislative
body, the learning curve was steep and sometimes confusing.
Congress has its routines, which we would come to know with time and practice, but in those early days, it was all so new. Like walking onto the floor of the House for the first time. Voting for the first time. Getting your member pin and voting card. Seeing your name for the first time on a plaque outside your office.
I will always remember the night our freshman class had dinner in Statuary Hall. I could feel the history. The statues and portraits of yesteryear were all around us. It felt almost as if America's founders were watching and listening. We were walking in the same hallways and meeting in the same rooms where history had been made—and where it would likely be made again.
At the same time, an undercurrent of chaos raced beneath the excitement. Nobody grades on the curve in Congress, and there's not a great deal of margin for those who don't know the ropes, rules, and protocols. Your constituents deserve the same level of representation as those who live in the most senior members' districts, so you must absolutely hit the ground running. You have to assemble staff both in your home district and in Washington. You have to create a plan and a process and a protocol for every conceivable scenario, including how to handle calls for assistance from veterans, seniors, people seeking passports, and those who have insight into particular pieces of legislation. There's a lot to learn, a lot to manage, and a lot to take in.
Orientation is also a time to become acquainted with new colleagues. I needed to get to know the chairs of the committees and subcommittees I was assigned to, as well as their staff members. Women and men whom I had known only from television were now seated a row behind me in a Capitol Hill committee room.
One of my more vivid early memories was stopping by Paul Ryan's office to get his autograph. I'm sure the person who sits out front in his office thought I was crazy. What member of Congress stops by another member's office and asks for an autograph? One that doesn't know any better, that's who!
It seems funny now (and a little ridiculous in hindsight), but Paul had established himself as an ideological leader within our conference, and I wanted him to sign a book for me. He had roadmaps for tax reform and economic growth, and he was someone many of the freshmen admired and respected. He was, I suppose, famous to me.
Most members of Congress are uncomfortable signing autographs for people, but especially for someone they view as a peer and a colleague. Paul, though, was incredibly gracious and modest about it—as he is about everything. That seems so long ago, and I can't help but smile at the memory—especially since I would later sit next to him on the floor of the House and stop by his office (often bypassing the gatekeeper out front) to try to persuade him to be our Speaker of the House when John Boehner left. And Paul would later ask me to give the nominating speech in front of the Republican Conference when he ultimately ran for Speaker. To go from seeking an autograph to giving a nominating speech is a long, circuitous trip. But in late 2010 and early 2011, everything was new and exciting and unknown—including our famous colleagues.
I also remember meeting fellow freshman congressman Sean Duffy, who is from Wisconsin. In addition to being a reality TV star, a world-class lumberjack, and father to (then) a half-dozen children, Sean was a former prosecutor. At least we had that in common. I met Sean during lunch at one of our first orientation sessions. He was navigating the buffet line with his wife, Rachel, and all six of their children. Sean was struggling to hold his infant daughter while making plates for the other kids, so I offered to take the little girl for him.
"Thank you," he said. "That would be so nice."
"What's her name?" I asked.
He paused, and then said, "I honestly don't remember right now. We have so many."
We both laughed as he handed his daughter over to me and I carried little MariaVictoria through the buffet line. Thus began my friendship with Sean and Rachel Duffy. As it happened, Sean and I chose our first offices on the same floor of the same building, so we were able to work closely together during our freshman year. Years later, his eldest daughter, Evita, volunteered in my office and did a fantastic job. The friendship that began in that buffet line, with both Sean and Rachel Duffy, has continued to this day.