Heard on the Hill

What It Costs to Educate New Members of Congress

Recent House disbursement report includes total for fall orientation, though number could grow

Newly elected Minnesota Rep. Jason Lewis arrives at the Capitol Hill Hotel in November 2016 — the day freshman members checked in for orientation. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As empty nesters know, getting a freshman prepared for college can be expensive.

The same goes for a freshman in Congress.

Last year’s new member orientation for the House of Representatives cost roughly $400,000, according to quarterly House disbursement records published by the chief administrative officer.

The orientation programs occur after each election cycle, giving the newly named representatives a chance to learn about their future workplace before they get to the business of legislating. They cover topics such as budgets and personnel regulations, and participate in the ritual of a lottery to see who gets first dibs on vacant offices.

CQ Roll Call analyzed fourth-quarter spending of the House of Representatives to determine the cost of new member orientation programs, which took place the weeks before and after Thanksgiving.

Why is taxpayer money spent on these programs? By law, the House majority and minority leaders can approve spending on an orientation program. They, in turn, pay for the transportation, as well as lodging and food for the members-elect and one aide each. The future members can also get a phone and tablet to use before they officially begin their jobs in January. It’s all hosted by the Committee on House Administration.

“Through the Committee on House Administration, the House fulfills its obligations and responsibilities to ensure members-elect have a smooth transition to congressional service into the new Congress and are ready to serve their constituents from Day One after they are sworn in,” committee spokeswoman Erin McCracken said in an email.

Brad Fitch, a former congressional staffer who now leads the Congressional Management Foundation, called the program “absolutely essential for new members.”

“Right now, an entry-level employee at Burger King gets more training than an incoming House chief of staff,” Fitch said. “You think of all the responsibilities you have to inherit, and the expectation is that you’re going to be performing them on Day One.”

The largest single line cost for 2016’s orientation was a $260,000 payment to the Capitol Hill Hotel, which sits a block away from the Cannon House Office Building. The House books the entire hotel for the length of the program and uses it to house new members and their aides.

The House reported transportation costs to and from D.C. of about $65,000, though additional spending could be reported next quarter that would bring the total up.

In addition, the new member orientation incurred $25,000 in catering costs the day the incoming freshmen arrived — the single largest payment for food and drink by any House entity during the fourth quarter of 2016. The second-highest payment for food was also by the House Committee on Administration on the second day of orientation, though that $11,700 charge was not listed as related to orientation.

No other House office spent over $10,000 on a single catering charge during the last quarter of 2016.

The money spent on orientation during the fourth quarter of 2016 comes in marginally higher than how much previous Congresses spent during the same time frame in 2012 and 2014. In both those years, however, House disbursement reports from later quarters — which are not yet available for the most recent orientation — show additional spending.

The total amount spent on past orientations was about $560,000 in 2012 and $370,000 two years later. McCracken said the cost fluctuates based on how many nonincumbent candidates win their races in November.

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