Freshmen Lawmakers Try To Keep Up

The official House photographer, left, takes the freshman photo of newly elected House members on the steps of the Capitol, Monday, November 17, 2008, in Washington. The group will start when the 111th Congress open on Jan.3, 2009. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) AP Photo/Evan Vucci

This story was written by Patrick O'Conner.
This summer's reading list on Capitol Hill includes tomes with page counts that rival "War and Peace" - and the freshmen are having a hard time keeping up.

The House votes Friday on the Democrats' 1,201-page climate change bill. Up next is an 850-page outline for health care reform.

"The pace is making many well-intentioned people nervous," said Rep. Parker Griffith, a first-term Democrat from Alabama.

Griffith is an oncologist, which leaves him better prepared than most for the coming health care debate. But even he complains that Democratic leaders are moving too fast on health care for members to understand what they're doing.

"Why does it have a deadline?" Griffith said. "That makes no sense."

But junior members like Griffith don't set the legislative agenda, let alone the calendar for considering it. President Barack Obama has said he wants a health care bill on his desk by October, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has vowed to have a bill on the floor in July.

Rep. Frank Kratovil Jr., a freshman Democrat from Maryland who arrived in Congress with a bull's eye on his back, said he's been struck by "the pace at which these things move."

"At least initially, it's overwhelming," he said.

Congress is always a culture shock for first-year lawmakers, but this year's freshmen face the steepest learning curve of any in decades. Obama took office with an ambitious first-term agenda and a once-in-a-generation economic crisis that demanded bold strokes.

Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, hoping to capitalize on his popularity, wasted no time drafting ever more ambitious bills to address legislative priorities that have been on their wish lists for years.

Already this year, the freshmen have cast party-line votes on a $787 billion economic rescue package, a budget blueprint and a bill funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Depending on how the rest of the year plays out, these new members could find themselves defining their entire careers with votes cast before they've figured out how to navigate the Capitol basement.

Of all the bills, health care is the "Moby Dick." And with key committees in the House and Senate already moving forward with the drafting process, first-year lawmakers feel as if they're being asked to swallow the whale.

"I could spend my entire career trying to be a health care expert, and I'd never get there," said freshman Rep. Christopher Lee, one of three New York Republicans. "It's so complicated."

Soon after the election, Lee recruited a group of 70 local health care experts - doctors, patient advocates, administrators and others - to help him weigh the competing interests involved. These local tutors help the congressman define the issue - and allow him to stake a position with his constituents before he's asked to cast a difficult vote.

Other members are educating themselves - and their constituents - in different ways. During the last weeklong recess, first-year Democrats held 77 town halls, conference calls and other local health care events with constituents, according to a count compiled by the office of Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

"From the day I got elected, I knew this would be the big focus of Congress," said freshman Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from Maine. "We've done as many meetings as we can."

As assistant to the speaker, Van Hollen has worked closely with Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) to educate first- and second-term Democrats on the complex topic. The group recruits stakeholders and other experts to the Capitol to brief junior members, and Hoyer's staff has produced reams of paperwork to feed anyone desperate for more reading material.

Freshman Rep. Thomas Perriello, a Democrat frm Virginia, said the leaders have "done a good job of listening."

But the freshmen know that they're not driving the train.

"We know we're freshmen, so it's not like everyone is waiting for us to decide what we should do," said Pingree. "But we represent a fairly big bloc."

As a member of Maine's state Senate, Pingree took bus rides to Canada with local seniors who were buying cheap prescription drugs. She accompanied them to learn more about the issue before helping enact a law allowing the state's Medicaid agency to negotiate drug prices - the first such law in the country.

Tasked with helping her fellow Democrats in Congress explain the issue to voters, Pingree said "there is a huge range" in what her colleagues know about health care at this stage in the debate.

The early debate has been defined by two unanswered questions: whether the package will include government-sponsored coverage that competes with private insurers and how Congress will pay for the overhaul. But those partisan fights obscure many other dramatic changes that have been proposed.

"We're so bogged down in the public plan," Griffith said. "That's gotten to be a lightning rod. It's been a positive for some. It's been a huge negative for others."

Some of the freshmen have already raised questions about the draft being discussed; New Jersey Democratic Rep. John Adler put out a statement last Friday saying he has "serious reservations" because the draft "does not do enough to contain costs, which is a fundamental part of the problem with our health care system."

But it's hard to know what sort of bill lawmakers will ultimately face, because multiple committees have claimed jurisdiction over the issue. In the Senate, two separate panels are crafting competing measures. In the House, the three committees of jurisdiction have joined forces to craft a discussion draft, but that unity will be hard to maintain as the panels start adding amendments.

"It's kind of a moving target," Griffith said. "We've got so many committees working on it."

Democratic leaders are trying to calm their members, emphasizing the word "discussion" in the discussion draft offered last week so that rank and file won't run screaming from the bill before the language is official.

But some members say it's still too much, too soon.

Kratovil, a former prosecutor, is reading everything he can get his hands on - including Republicans' talking points - in order to get up to speed in time for the vote.

"You get to think more when you've had more time to review it," he said.
  • Prerana Swami

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