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More than 100 new members of Congress arrived in Washington over the weekend to begin orientation — the process of teaching them how to become what they campaigned against.
As soon as a candidate is elected, a massive propaganda machine cranks up with a single purpose: Teach each and every one of the newbies how to become a member of the privileged class where rules don’t apply, ethics doesn’t matter and adherence to party dogma reigns supreme.
Each member goes through two orientations: One conducted by the administrative offices of the House and Senate and the other administered by the political partie. Each starts the week by telling the newly-elected that they have become members of a very small, select club. Only 435 men and women serve as members of the House of Representatives for each two-year term and only 100 Senators sit in the “upper body” for six years at a time.
The propaganda machine has one purpose: Get the new member in line and make each part of the system as quickly as possible.
Each will be told that their re-election campaign began on Nov. 3 — the day after the election.
Each will be told that they should leverage their Congressional offices to the limit of the law for one goal: Winning re-election in two or six years.
Each will be urged to populate their staffs not with the campaign workers who worked long hours for them to the election but from a select group of Capitol Hill professionals who specialize in getting new members up to speed.
While the official “sessions” will concentrate on what can and cannot be done within the lenient limits of the law, veterans will take the newbies out for drinks and explain how the system can be exploited to maximize campaign contributions, free trips and the perks of power.
They will be told which Capitol Hill Office will take care of parking tickets, which House or Senate officer can be used to circumvent which rules. They will be taught how to charge off personal lunches in the House and Senate dining rooms as “meals with constitutents” and how to navigate around limits on free dinners from lobbyists.
House and Senate leaders will advise them which special interest groups have the best conventions in the best locations and how to obtain invitations to speak before the groups and how to hedge on reporting gifts and expenses.
Local bankers will offer below prime mortgages so they can purchase condos at deflated prices and sell them down the line for inflated amounts. They will learn which DC-area car dealers offer sweetheart deals for leases. And they will be taught how to obtain a luxury car at taxpayer expense and list it on official reports as a “district mobile office.”
They will learn how to get on the list to travel on Air Force planes to the Paris Air Show in 2011.
They will be urged to hire a chief of staff, a chief legislative aide and a press secretary with Capitol Hill experience so those key staffers can take care of the day-to-day details of governing. They will be advised how to carefully co-sponsor select bills at the behest of party leadership and how to milk that sponsorship for maximum media back home.
And while the newbies ponder all this, the leaders of both parties will be meeting with each other to select who will be the players in the new classes of Republicans and Democrats and who can best be converted to the “Capitol Hill way of doing things.”
I’ve been through this process. In 1982, the National Republican Congressional Committee recruited me to join the staff of New Mexico Congressman Manual Lujan and help him through a difficult election two years later. Then the same committee asked me to set up the office for a freshman Republican and spend the next two years as his chief of staff.
From 1982-88, I taught courses in freshman orientation on Capitol Hill and wrote the manual: Hitting the Ground Running: A Guide to Freshman Members of the House. It didn’t take long to turn most of these “change” candidates into just another cog in the system.
Voters spoke on Nov. 2 to send a message to Washington. But as soon as all these instruments of change arrived in town, a massive system of Capitol Hill pros, party consultants, lobbyists and long-time operatives work together to mold all these idealistic newbies into the very thing most of them campaigned against.
The system will prevail.
These new members may have defeated incumbents and/or the party establishment to get to Washington but on Capitol Hill the system is God…and God doesn’t lose.