Rep. Helen Chenoweth learned plenty in her first 24 hours in Congress.
Keep your speeches short to fit in the tiny time slots allotted by your party’s leaders. Study your parliamentary tactics to anticipate the obscure challenges an opponent might raise. Leave your schedule flexible to allow for sessions that run several hours longer than expected.
And don’t wear 2-inch heels. Your feet won’t like it when you are on them for hours at a time.
Chenoweth said Thursday she’ll long remember those lessons and several important memories from her first day in the new Republican Congress. By the calendar, it really stretched over two days, from the time new members were sworn into office about noon Wednesday until they recessed at 2:30 a.m. Thursday.
“It was a zoo,” the Idaho Republican said of her day of celebration and voting.
But with all the partying and fanfare, “we passed some pretty momentous legislation,” she added.
The opening of a new Congress usually is a time for much celebration and little official business. But the new Republican majority was intent on making its first payment on the “Contract With America” after being sworn in Wednesday, and it went right to work changing rules that govern the House.
“We were warned that the only thing to break through the inertia is hard work and willpower,” she said during an interview in her Capitol Hill office Thursday. “There’s going to be a lot of long evenings.”
Chenoweth spoke on one of the rule changes, which forbids a member of Congress from voting on a bill before a committee when he or she is not present. She opposed socalled proxy voting during the campaign and was glad when GOP leaders asked her to be one of several speakers in the timecontrolled debate.
Unlike the campaign, where a candidate sometimes can wax eloquent as long as she desires on an issue, House debate is strictly controlled. She was given one minute.
For her first 60 seconds on the House floor, she decided to blend the past and the present. She talked about Thomas Jefferson’s willingness to leave his home and make what then was a four-day trip to serve in Washington. Then she likened service in Congress to service in the military.
“I feel that when we ask our men and women to commit their lives to this country … we don’t allow them to send a proxy to a foreign country during war,” she said.
People elected to Congress have asked to serve, and they should be present, she said.
Although she was happy to speak on that rule, she believes the most remarkable of the eight rule changes made in the marathon session involve taxes. Under the new rule, any increase in income taxes must be approved by a three-fifths, rather than a simple, majority.
That higher majority will be much harder to achieve, and should allow the Congress to concentrate on cutting spending while it holds the line on taxes, Chenoweth said.
She was glad to have the chance to speak, however briefly, on her first day. Her old boss, former Sen. Steve Symms of Idaho, called later to congratulate her and note that when he came to Congress in 1972, freshmen were hardly ever allowed speak.
Her speech Wednesday may be the last for a while - by her own choice. She wants to spend the next three months on the floor of the House, watching the exchanges between debating members and learning about the parliamentary tactics that can derail a bill.
She learned a new respect for Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who spent most of the night opposing Republican rules.
“He’s so quick,” she said.
But she knows veteran House Republicans, who spent 40 years in the minority, are experts at the parliamentary tactics the Democrats might now use.
“If a freshman is sinking, they’ll probably be there to help us,” she said.
Her staff is setting up shop in her new office on the seventh floor of the Longworth Building, where she inherited predecessor Larry LaRocco’s phone number - (202) 225-6611 - and some of his computers. But her first day in Congress convinced her they’re too antiquated to keep up with a new forum for political discourse, the Internet.
By the time she arrived in her office Thursday morning, Republicans already had sent out reports on their first day in office. She already was getting feedback from constituents. She wants to be able to communicate via computer with different groups that may be affected by pending legislation and get their suggestions.