WASHINGTON -- Although he won't be officially sworn in until Jan. 4, Maryland's newest congressman was already getting a taste yesterday of what life will be like on Capitol Hill.
Leaving a meeting room briefly, the 2nd District's Rep.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was surrounded by reporters pounding him with questions about a variety of issues -- such as what was going on at a closed-door orientation meeting or his position on school prayer.
The prayer question brought a vague reply, "Not part of the contract" -- a reference to the GOP's "Contract with America."
"That was something," Mr. Ehrlich said afterward, marveling at the unaccustomed news media attention.
Moments later, he was approached by a woman offering Dictaphone services, one of many job-seekers he said he has encountered since he won the election.
Despite the attention, Mr. Ehrlich, a 36-year-old lawyer from Timonium and two-term member of the House of Delegates, noted that he's not quite a member of Congress.
"I haven't been given anything yet," he said -- not even a parking space. That's why, like many visitors to Capitol Hill, he had to -- out between closed-door meetings to feed a meter.
The biggest meeting of the day was held by Rep. Newt Gingrich, the Georgia Republican who is expected to become speaker of the House in the 104th Congress. Mr. Gingrich told his new Republican colleagues -- among other things -- that the new Congress will be more open.
But that promise of openness was made behind closed doors.
"I don't know" why the meetings are closed, said Mr. Ehrlich, who is succeeding fellow Republican Rep. Helen Delich Bentley. "I was surprised."
"It has always been like that," said Bill Pierce, press secretary for Rep. Bill Thomas, a California Republican. "It's more by custom than by design."
Mr. Thomas, the ranking Republican on the Committee on House Administration, helped organize a weeklong series of orientation meetings for freshman Republicans that began yesterday.
Mr. Ehrlich, who defeated Democrat Gerry L. Brewster in the Nov. 8 general election, represents a district that includes the eastern half of Baltimore County, all of Harford and a sliver of Anne Arundel.
Mr. Ehrlich and others said the orientation meetings are "nuts-and-bolts" affairs dealing with nonpolicy matters -- hiring staff, buying office furniture, using the franking privilege and separating congressional staff budgets from campaign funds.
"It's how they set up their office. That's all they're doing," said Mr. Pierce, who seemed surprised that anyone would ask why the meetings for new House members would be closed. "They want to make sure they have enough freedom to ask whatever they want to ask."
Nonetheless, he said that Congress under the new Republican majority will be much more open than it has been under Democratic rule.
"We're going to open the thing wide open," he said. "People are going to see sunshine on the process here."
Among the nuts-and-bolts items Mr. Ehrlich and his colleagues received were a thick red binder detailing congressional office procedures and a red hardbound book on congressional ethics.
They listened to speeches from Mr. Gingrich, Mr. Thomas and even Mr. Gingrich's wife who, Mr. Ehrlich said, talked about "getting used to the life, and some of the pressures."
The new members also got advice on dealing with the news media.
"There's no such thing as a puff piece, and even when the press tells you it's a puff piece, don't buy it," Mr. Ehrlich said, quoting Joe Gaylord, a staff member who works for Mr. Gingrich's GOPAC political action committee.
Mr. Ehrlich said Mr. Gingrich talked with his new troops about their "Contract with America" and told them that they need to deliver on their campaign promises.
"He talked about the negative historical precedent of reformers coming to Washington and getting co-opted," Mr. Ehrlich said. "And that's something we have to work hard against."