Freshman Members of Congress Attend Kennedy-School Orientation

For six days, they went to classes on the economy, cities, health care

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ATTIRED in blue jeans, sneakers, and business and jogging suits, some 80 new members of the House of Representatives wrapped up a six-day orientation program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government Dec. 15.

In informal classroom settings, members attended lectures on such subjects as the national economy, United States cities, global population, health care, and environmental policy.

The Kennedy School has conducted the orientation program since 1972. This year, however, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, held its own orientation starting on the same day as the Kennedy School orientation.

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"We had some complaints from current members about how liberal Harvard's program was and we felt it was time to offer an alternative," says Matt Miller, director of congressional relations for the US House at the Heritage Foundation. No Democrats attended that session.

At the Kennedy School, freshman congressmen noted that their 110-member class is unusual. "We're unique in appearance because we're a lot more reflective of America," says Rep.-elect Melvin Watt (D) of North Carolina. "There are a lot more minorities and women."

Sporting a "Give 'em Mel" sweat shirt, Representative-elect Watt says: "It's been depressing because everybody is emphasizing the magnitude of all the problems we are facing."

"I think the priorities will be defined by what the president submits to Congress," he says. "[My job] is taking what Clinton proposes and then trying to sharpen and focus it for the benefit of my constituents."

A look at some new members of the 103rd Congress shows a diverse group. They are generally younger than their incumbent colleagues, and more than 70 percent of them have had previous experience in elective office.

Charles Royer, director of the Kennedy School's Institute of Politics, says that for the first time in many years the freshmen face an undivided government with Democrats controlling Congress and the White House. "They're big enough to feel they have some weight to make a difference, and they are trying to figure out how as newcomers they can," he says.

Yet, even though the new group constitutes the largest class since 1948, some members feel that their individual differences are too great.

"On every issue we represent individual districts and individual priorities and individual philosophies," says Rep.-elect Eddie Bernice Johnson (D) of Texas.

Nevertheless, the atmosphere here was cordial and bipartisan.

In the penthouse conference room overlooking the snow-covered Harvard campus and Charles River, members listened to a session titled "Health Care in the 1990s" moderated by Robert Blendon, chairman of the Health, Policy, and Management Department at the university's School of Public Health. US Trade Representative Carla Hills, Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, and New York City Mayor David Dinkins also gave speeches.

Although organizers say the program was well-attended, the weekend nor'easter snowstorm kept some speakers and participants away. Others went to Mr. Clinton's economic summit in Little Rock, Ark.

Besides the inclement weather, members are coping with common logistical problems for freshmen, such as finding housing, hiring a staff, or deciding on a computer system for the new office.

When the issue of housing arrangements came up, Rep.-elect Lynn Schenk (D) of California offered a titter. "Is this nervous laughter? Yes," she says. "My `to do' list for the week used to include things like going to the bank [and doing simple errands]. But this past week, my `to do' list is to find an apartment in a city that I know nothing about, hire a staff, get a committee assignment. ... It's like a new job."

Other congressmen have not yet resolved what to do about their families. During the session, Rep.-elect Don Johnson (D) of Georgia sneaked out to attend a Harvard undergraduate class on the American presidency with his son, a student here. But he worries about his wife and two other children home in Georgia. "I found a bedroom apartment near the Capitol, so I've been pretty lucky in that regard," he says.

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