A New School Year

Everyone wants to know who everyone is on the first day of school.

Who’s that guy over there. What’s her deal? Where did he transfer from? Did she pledge yet? Oh, I hope he’s in my chemistry lab.

And it’s not all that different on the first day of school on Capitol Hill, either.

The 113th Congress convened at noon on Thursday. Lawmakers might not have to register for classes. But they do have to pile into the Speaker’s Lobby just off the House floor to pick up their Congressional pins, their electronic voting cards and their Congressional license tags.

A small group of reporters huddled in the Speaker’s Lobby Thursday morning to observe this exercise. The scribes chatted with the returning upperclassmen who they knew. And just like the kids leaning up against the cafeteria wall after lunch waiting for the start of fifth period, they whispered about all of the freshmen.

Who’s that? Who did she beat? That’s him???? Gosh, he sure doesn’t look like his picture….

Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH) has been in Congress before. She served two terms in the House before former Rep. Frank Guinta (R-NH) defeated her in the GOP’s 2010 wave. Shea-Porter avenged that loss by toppling Guinta last November.

“And you are?” a reporter asked the New Hampshire Democrat as she picked up her pin, not recognizing Shea-Porter from her previous service.

You see, Congress is just like school. You have to know who the popular kids are. Which one drives the ‘78 Camaro. Who wears a varsity letter jacket around. Who are the hoods. Which ones hang out in the smoking circle – besides House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). Who are the pranksters. And in the now immortal words of former Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-OH), who are the “chuckleheads.”

It’s all about getting noticed. And if you took a semester off, things aren’t exactly the way you left them when you were last on campus.

One of the journalists asked Shea-Porter if she noticed anything different this time around.

“Yeah,” Shea-Porter replied. “We’re not in the majority.”

Lawmakers don’t have class schedules like students. But they do have offices. Everyone wanted to know where the new digs were for each lawmaker. Like Shea-Porter, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) is another lawmaker who lost in 2010 during the Republican purge, yet scored re-election in 2012. Grayson’s office is now suite 430 of the Cannon House Office Building, formerly occupied by Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX). Grayson noted that when he was a freshman in January, 2009, he also inherited the same office held by Poe in the previous Congress.

“It’s like I’m following Ted Poe around,” said Grayson. “I don’t know what that means. But I’m sure those of you in the press will tell us it means something.”

The 112th Congress had still not adjourned sine die late Thursday morning, even though the 113th Congress was to start at noon. Sine die (pronounced SIGH-nee DYE) is a Latin phrase which means “without day.” In Congress-ese, it translates to “peace out.” And as of 11:57 am Thursday, the 112th Congress had still not peaced out.

That was until then-Rep. Bob Dold (R-IL) walked to the dais and grabbed the gavel. He rapped the gavel against the rostrum, adjourning the House sine die. It would be Dold’s last official act as a Congressman – at least for now. Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL) defeated Dold. And in three minutes, Dold wouldn’t be able to sit at the cool kids table for lunch any longer.

Once a quorum call was complete in the House, the first order of business was electing a class president, er, House Speaker.

Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) is in his sophomore term in Congress. Amash made a name for himself in the last Congress, often voting “present” instead of yea or nay on various issues he didn’t find to be Constitutional. The House GOP leadership also bounced Amash from a key committee assignment recently. The Michigan Republican made it clear he wasn’t a fan of Boehner.

“We need an immediate change around here,” said Amash. “There’s definitely a lot of discontent on our side.”

During the election for Speaker, House Reading Clerk Susan Cole reads through the list of the members alphabetically. Each member rises and calls out his or her pick for Speaker by name. So it was no surprise when early in the roll call that Amash announced his vote for Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) instead of Boehner.

That wasn’t unexpected because the House knows Amash.

Hardly anyone knew who freshman Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) was.

But they sure did by the time Cole called Bridenstine’s name.

Bridenstine voted for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA). An audible gasp permeated the House chamber. Murmuring began as lawmakers and the press wondered if this was the start of a rumored insurrection against Boehner. Others chattered at the audacity of Bridenstine’s move – his first action as a Member of Congress and he votes against the sitting speaker.

“It’s going to be a long two years for him,” speculated one reporter in the press gallery.

Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) has a little more Congressional seniority than Bridenstine, despite voters electing them on the same day in November. Massie succeeded former Rep. Geoff Davis (R-KY) who abruptly resigned in late summer. The House swore-in Massie in early November.

Like most freshmen, few knew who Massie was. Massie materialized in the Speaker’s Lobby to acquire his pin and voting card late Thursday morning. He joked that he had only been in office for six weeks and now had two Congressional pins.

“It’s like I’m collecting these things,” Massie said.

Massie was coy when asked how he would vote for Speaker.

“You’ll know in about an hour,” he said with a  smile.

And that’s when Massie joined a list of defectors and voted for Justin Amash.

“I came here not to get along with all of the people here,” said Massie Thursday afternoon. “I have no personal animosity toward John Boehner. He did a fundraiser back in my district.”

Massie was asked if he thought Boehner would return to conduct another fundraiser for him.

“I don’t know,” Massie replied.

But one thing’s for sure. Like Bridenstine, people around school sure know who Massie is now.

If the first day of a new Congress is a lot like the first day of high school, it also resembles the first day elementary or even pre-school.

Nearly every lawmaker who has children or grandchildren dresses them in their Sunday best and parades them around the Capitol on the initial day of a Congress.

Freshman Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) walked hand-in-hand with her two children on either side of her down a Congressional hallway. An unidentified woman knelt on the marble, trying to entertain the two young girls. She pretended that the miniature, child-size doorways which line some Capitol corridors were actually secret passages for trolls. The doorways are painted shut and are the backs of old fireplaces. They empty into the hallways so people could remove the ash from a fire through the back. The woman kept knocking on the door, telling the girls if they behaved a little man might answer.

Many lawmakers took their kids into the chamber for the Speaker vote and speeches by Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

One of the sons of Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-IN), dressed in a suit, sat attentively on his father’s lap.

The restless grandkids of Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) rubbed their eyes and yawned.

Stationed at his usual post near the back of the chamber, Rep. Don Young (R-AK) joined Wolf’s grandkids in tiring of Pelosi’s remarks.

“The Lady’s time is up!” groused Young, not-exactly under his breath. Former Rep. Melissa Hart (R-PA) stood nearby rapped Young on his shoulder with the back of her hand in an effort to quiet him.

School picture day usually doesn’t happen until late September or even October.

But not on Capitol Hill. Picture day is the first day. And all of the lawmakers and their families filter into the Rayburn Room near the House floor to get an official photo with Boehner.

The formal swearing-in of all lawmakers takes place on the floor. But here, the lawmaker, Boehner and their families pose for a mock swearing-in. The Library of Congress even delivers a set of sacred religious texts to the Capitol. That’s so the lawmakers can appear as though they are taking the oath. On hand for the photo op were the Catholic Bible, the Protestant Bible, the Eastern Orthodox Bible, the Torah, the Book of Mormon, Buddhist Sutras and Hindu Vedas.

The Buddhist Sutras were particularly interesting. They’re a stack of long scrolls, bound together and wrapped in silk sheaves. They’re packed into a rectangular, white box, stamped “Tibetan Collection: Asia Division” of the Library of Congress.

In an effort to expedite the process, Boehner’s staff arranged two lines to funnel into the room in front of a bank of American flags. Boehner would then toggle back and forth between the flags, posing for one picture while his aides positioned the next lawmaker at the other photo op position.

Most at the photo op behaved. And their children did, too.

At one point, one of the daughters of Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI) got a little rambunctious and started to roll around on the floor. Boehner then crept down and began to quack at her like a duck.

It’s unclear if Boehner might use that same tactic with Amash, Bridenstine and Massie when he’s trying to court their votes for legislation.

Just because Boehner’s Speaker of the House, it doesn’t mean he knows all of the rookies. After all, it’s the first day of school and no one’s published the yearbook yet. Boehner politely asked freshman Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) who she was when she arrived solo for her photo.

Moments later, freshman Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) took the initiative and beat the Ohio Republican to the punch. Sinema introduced herself to Boehner before the photographer snapped their picture.

New school years mean new traditions. Who hasn’t suffered brain lock and gone to a class they had the year before, only to immediately realize they were in the wrong place.

Something similar happened in the Senate on Friday afternoon.

When the activity on the floor lulls, the clerk begins a quorum call, slowly reading the names of each senator alphabetically to fill the time.

Out of habit, a clerk started the roll by uttering “Mr. Akaka.” She then hastily corrected herself by reading “Mr. Alexander.”

For years, Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI) was first alphabetically in the Senate. But Akaka retired early this week after more than 22 years in the Senate. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) is now at the top alphabetically. So the Senate will always hear the clerk call Alexander’s name first during all quorum calls and roll call votes.

Old ways die hard. And it takes time to settle in to the new school year.