New members of Congress talk like team players Freshmen get their orientation

December 02, 1992|By David Hess and R.A. Zaldivar ZTC | David Hess and R.A. Zaldivar ZTC,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- From all the campaign sound and fury, you would have expected the 110 new members of Congress to swoop in like revolutionaries, sweeping out the old order and creating a new one.

But as the freshmen assembled for the first time yesterday on Capitol Hill, they did what the old pols do: They met behind closed doors.

Any talk of upending congressional traditions and the iron rule of seniority was muted. These rookies say they're more interested in being team players than in changing the rules of the game.

"If Congress works to solve health care and gets the economy going on all cylinders again," said Rep.-elect Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., "who's going to care about reforming House rules?"

"The whole key to how well we do in Congress is how well we keep in step with the Clinton administration and the leadership here in the House," said Rep.-elect Carrie Meek, D-Fla. "I don't think anyone up here wants to be a big hero."

A dissonant note was sounded during a meeting of Republican freshmen, many of whom campaigned against Congress.

While saying they, too, will play by the rules, many made it clear they will also press for congressional term limits and for giving the president the power to veto pork-barrel projects in spending bills.

Majority Democrats, said Rep.-elect Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., "don't want any reform. They are closing the door on the sentiment of the American people. And if they do that, they'll not remain in the majority very long."

Newcomers in both parties, though calling for campaign reform and for weakening the lobbyists' grip on Congress, planned for evening receptions this week to party with those very same lobbyists.

The Democrats hobnobbed with special-interest groups last night, and the Republicans plan a PAC-sponsored fete tomorrow.

With 110 members -- 63 Democrats and 47 Republicans -- the freshman class of '92 is the largest since World War II. Many ran on reform platforms, dedicated to the proposition that Congress was a mess and, by gosh, they were going to do something about it.

But as agents of change, these folks were mighty well-behaved as they went to class for some orientation.

Unlike the reform-minded Watergate class of 1974, these freshmen -- the vast majority of whom have served in state legislatures and on city councils -- do not see the need for an assault on the established leaders of the House.

"Most of the folks here are seasoned elected officials," said Rep.-elect Albert Wynn, D-Md. "We're only concerned with the rules to the extent that they affect our ability to deliver the product."

Some freshmen gave the leadership credit for closing the widely abused House bank, doing away with a few perks and replacing some patronage employees with professionals.

If anything, they might help the leadership undo some of the reforms that wrested power from the autocratic Old Bulls in the House 18 years ago. An unintended consequence of those reforms was to make it harder to get things done.

"This class probably recognizes that all that democracy was somewhat counterproductive in terms of achieving policy goals," said Rep.-elect Mike Kreidler, D-Wash.

Next week, Democrats will debate and vote on rule changes that would give the House speaker more control of the legislative agenda and greater power over committee chairmen.

Freshmen orientation yesterday dealt with everything from the mundane to the inscrutable.

The new members discussed how to answer constituent mail between now and when they're actually sworn in Jan. 5.

They also heard alternative strategies for reducing the deficit, coming face to face with the contradiction of trying to rev the economic accelerator while applying the spending brakes.

So why do all this behind closed doors?

"A lot of it is so you won't shy away from asking dumb questions," said Mr. Kreidler, a 16-year veteran of the Washington legislature.

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