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Freshman orientation on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON - The media mob was taking pictures of a man having his picture taken.

WASHINGTON - The media mob was taking pictures of a man having his picture taken.

"Who is he?" reporters and photographers asked each other Monday in the basement of the Capitol Visitors Center, peering through a doorway. "Who is he?" was repeated down the line. "Is there an echo in here?" someone said.

Rep.-elect Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, was taking care of the most important task of the first day of freshman orientation: getting the smart ID card that will allow him to cast votes on the House floor when the 112th Congress convenes in January.

That ritual was repeated again and again Monday as 94 newbies - 85 Republicans and 9 Democrats - sat through eight hours of presentations on how to be members of Congress.

The job's more complicated than it might have seemed on the campaign trail.

The incoming representatives were given huge, three-ring binders stuffed with briefing papers, "about the same size" as the Philadelphia Eagles' offensive playbook, said South Jersey Republican Jon Runyan, a retired lineman for the football team. "I'm sure that's not all of it either."

The GOP will take over the majority, having gained 60 seats now held by Democrats, on the strength of voter frustration over the economy and government spending, and with the aid of the tea party activists.

At least 35 of these new lawmakers bring no experience in elective office to Capitol Hill, the largest number of true rookies in decades.

Besides Runyan, they include a dentist, a pilot, a pizza shop owner, a minister, and a reality TV star.

"There are a lot of things you have to go to school on," said Rep.-elect Billy Long, Republican of Missouri, who is an auctioneer and real-estate broker. Conflict of interest rules, he said, will require him to liquidate his auction firm.

But he has "spent the last 55 years learning" how to be a congressman, Long said. He said he'll work to starve President Obama's health-care overhaul of funding and then repeal it, and wants to slash spending.

"You remember that old Barbara Mandrell song 'I was country before country was cool?'" Long said. "We've been tea partying in the seventh district of Missouri before the tea party was cool. We believe in smaller government, lower taxes and sticking to the constitution."

That was a common theme expressed by many of the incoming Republican majority. The institution of the House was beginning to envelop them, but they vowed to remain true to the conservative principles that got them here.

The sessions, organized by the Committee on House Administration - chaired by Rep. Bob Brady, the Philadelphia Democrat - covered everything from pay and health benefits to the legal requirements of hiring and managing employees.

Members-to-be were told by a panel of lawyers that they could set their offices' own rules, so long as the rules were clearly spelled out to employees and did not violate federal civil rights laws protecting minorities, women and the disabled from discrimination.

"You think about yourself – you're here to do a job, but yet you're an employer also," Runyan said. "Sitting in there has opened my eyes to that. . . . You don't think about that kind of stuff when you're running."

Republican Pat Meehan, who was elected to represent the Seventh District, said during a midday break that he found much of the material on ethics familiar from his time as U.S. Attorney for Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Arkansas Republican Steve Womack, the mayor of the town of Rogers in the northwest corner of the state, said the orientation sessions contained a "firehose of information." As a mayor, his state's ethics laws allowed him to accept gifts worth less than $100, but he said that the House rules demand he take nothing, not even a "coffee mug with a logo on it."

Tim Griffith, a Republican from Little Rock, said he was planning on sleeping in a cot in his office - as about 60 House members currently do - and going home as often as possible.

"Not me," Womack said, "I need some fresh air." But he fretted about the price of Washington real estate and rents. "Anything reasonable here, with a bedroom or two and a kitchenette, is twice my mortgage," Womack said.

Republican Lou Barletta, who was elected to represent Pennsylvania's 11th District, said he wants to make sure he hires a good staff. Members of the House are allotted money to hire 18 full-time employees and four part-timers.

"Everyone I've known since my Little League has been asking me for a job," Barletta said.

He said that he was awed when he walked on the House floor for the first time Sunday night, when incoming GOP members gathered for a dinner with Rep. John Boehner (R., Ohio), set to become speaker.

"They've just thrown so much at us today," Barletta said Monday. "The main thing sticking in my mind right now is that you don't want to inadvertently do something you shouldn't do that violates the rules of conduct. . . . You need to be aware."

It was a common lesson in the orientation sessions: As a member of Congress, you're under a microscope.

Even before the official orientation, the Tea Party Patriots group caused an uproar by publishing on the Internet the personal cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses of the freshmen, asking supporters to contact them to make sure they went to the Patriots' Sunday seminar instead of an offering from the more traditional Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank.

"I got 167 e-mails. I wasn't too happy about it. I'd say they lost some credibility," said Missouri's Long. But he got the message: "They wanted us to know we're being watched."

The orientation continues all week and culminates Friday with a drawing of lots for office assignments.