Minnesota’s newest members of Congress are getting ready to start work in a government that just stopped working.
For weeks, our five newly elected lawmakers have been going through freshman orientation and picking out offices and getting lost in the tunnels under the Capitol. They’re all set to hire staff and set up district offices and jostle for the committee assignments they hope will make the biggest difference to their districts.
Now the government’s partially shut down again, the president won’t stop tweeting, nobody’s paying the park rangers and if Americans wants to fly home for Christmas, they’re going to have to get past a bunch of really cranky TSA agents.
Welcome to Washington, new lawmakers! None of this is your fault yet.
Congress was supposed to sign off on the TSA payroll and a bunch of other agency budgets by the end of September 2017. Instead, we’ve been limping along with temporary spending bills and the occasional government shutdown.
This new shutdown — America’s third this year — will muck up: Homeland Security, the State Department, the Justice Department, NASA, the Food and Drug Administration, the departments of Interior, Treasury, Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, Commerce, Transportation, and the IRS.
I would prefer to be living in an America where the food gets inspected, the astronauts get paychecks and the federal courts are solvent. But here we are.
Which brings us to the freshmen. The only people in Washington we’re not mad at yet.
On her first evening of freshman orientation, Democratic Rep.-elect Angie Craig of Minnesota’s Second District walked into the Capitol hand in hand with her wife, looking for the new-member reception.
Following a guard’s directions, she took a left, then another left and almost smacked into Mitt Romney and Mitch McConnell, mingling at a reception for 10 new members of the U.S. Senate. After some backtracking, they made it to the gathering for the 100 new members of the House of Representatives.
Before the shutdown ruined everybody’s Christmas, Craig and the other freshmen were eager to get to work, and hopeful that a divided Congress in a divided country could still come together to do some good.
“The most difficult thing in today’s political environment is developing relationships across the aisle,” Craig said.
If you want to start building those bipartisan relationships, congressional veterans told her, start by getting yourself a good alarm clock.
Relationships in Congress are built on “little things, like showing up in the House gym at 6 in the morning for a bipartisan workout,” Craig said. “If you don’t show up where both sides are going to be present, you’re not going to develop those relationships.”
The new members are joining an old institution with odd rules and rituals: like the way they make new members draw lots in a freshman office lottery that decides who gets the first crack at the best office space.
Rep.-elect Jim Hagedorn of the First District scored the same office his father, former U.S. Rep. Tom Hagedorn, R-Minn., occupied four decades ago.
“Turns out, it was the wing of the Cannon [House office] building that was getting refurbished so it wasn’t high on the priority list,” said Hagedorn, who also found time to get married this month, right before he started his new job.
Hagedorn is a Republican who won a seat in Congress just as his party lost its majority in the House. But even in the minority, he said, “there’s always work to be done on the committees, and that’s really where a lot of the compromise gets done — or at least where the ideas are flowing back and forth.”
Democratic Rep.-elect Dean Phillips of the Fourth District came away from freshman orientation inspired and eager to start work.
“It’s been extraordinary. Like drinking not just from a fire hose but a fire hydrant,” he said. “It’s the most remarkable group of people with whom I’ve ever been surrounded — on both sides of the aisle. … There’s a spirit of collegiality and an appetite for reform and progress that has been really inspiring.”
Freshman lawmakers are supposed to listen and learn and stay in the background until they figure out how Washington works. But Washington isn’t working right now. Maybe we turn it over to the new kids next year and see what they can do.
“I’ve been spending a lot of time with new members on both sides of the aisle and it’s [a group] diverse in experience and backgrounds, races and religions. An extraordinary group,” Phillips said. “I hope both sides don’t regress to the historical mean.”