Tea Party Freshmen Absorb Shock of D.C.

Walking quickly toward the House of Representatives to cast a vote, freshman Rep. Kristi Noem chuckles when asked who she turned to for advice on settling into Congress.

“I haven’t worried too much about learning the ropes,” said Noem, a rancher in South Dakota, during a recent House session. “In the past, that has been something that maybe has tripped up new members. It’s good to come up here and understand the process, but we need to make sure that we are doing it our own way.”

USA TODAY interviewed Noem and other Tea Party-supported freshmen in Congress to gauge how they were transitioning from their 2010 campaigns, where they promised to change Washington, to actual governing in D.C.

Noem, one of two freshmen who act as liaisons between House leadership and the 93-member freshman class, echoes some of her colleagues who don’t appear intimidated by working in the nation’s capital.

“I’m not a freshman. I’m just new in Congress,” said Rep. David McKinley, who served in the West Virginia House of Delegates and later as the GOP state party chairman before his election to Congress last year.

Others openly admit that they were surprised to realize how difficult it is to get things done in Washington.

“I went in with the youthful vigor that I could single-handedly change the world,” said Texas Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold. “But you fast come to the realization that you’re 1/435th of one-half of one-third of the government.”

Farenthold said he has been speaking with a company back home about its possible expansion. The company says it’ll be cheaper to build a new plant in China because of all the regulations it faces in the U.S., and Farenthold vowed he would see about helping them once he got to Washington, he said.

“I don’t know how these bureaucrats sleep at night,” he said as he explained how he’s been unable to make progress. “Nobody in the Washington regulatory bureaucracy gets fired for saying no. There’s a lot of power to the status quo.”

Rep. Jeff Landry, a freshman Republican whose Louisiana coastal district was battered by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, has had a similar learning experience with federal agencies.

Landry grows frustrated as he explains the difficulties he has had helping his constituents recover, build levees and deepen the channel leading to the Port of New Orleans to allow heavier ships to dock there — a proposal that has stalled.

“Yet, we’ll spend $70 million straightening out the Missouri River to save a sturgeon,” Landry said. “We want to save the fish, but we need to fix our ports. That’s where the insanity in this government truly lies.”

Back in Tennessee, where Rep. Diane Black was chairwoman of the state Republican Senate Caucus, she said the Legislature would pass a law, state agencies would write rules to implement them and then bring those rules back to the Legislature for approval. While studying the health care law passed last year, she was angered when she learned many of those rules won’t come back to Congress for approval. “Congress seems to have abdicated much of those decisions,” she said.

Settling into D.C. has been hard on every level. In early May, the walls in the office of Florida Republican Rep. Dennis Ross were still bare. He said it’s too expensive to ship his hunting trophies to D.C. from his home outside Tampa, so he’s trying to coordinate a road trip with his wife to fill up his office.

“I do have furniture in my apartment,” he said. “That’s good.”

Farenthold said he struggled to find an apartment and felt it made better sense to buy a condo instead. He worried how that might come across.

“I thought, ‘How am I going to justify this to the Tea Party who supports term limits?’ and ‘How do I take this back home that I bought a place in Washington and not look like I’ve gone D.C.?”

Despite those difficulties, the group has already made a mark on Capitol Hill. Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman and now a political consultant, said the fact that the debate in Washington is now focused on how much to cut from the budget, rather than whether to cut, shows their impact.

“Talk about changing the direction of a Congress on spending,” Davis said. “They’ve certainly changed the direction and rhythm of Washington. They have a tremendous sense of accomplishment.”

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