Freshman class of US 99th Congress takes a crash course in issues at Harvard

The newest freshman class at Harvard will soon take seats in the US House of Representatives. To be sure, these are not ordinary Harvard students. (Is any student at Harvard ever ordinary?) The members of this freshman class are newly elected members of Congress.

Every two years, Harvard's Institute of Politics and the Committee on House Administration sponsor a week-long orientation program for freshman representatives.

Twenty-six members of the class showed up at the John F. Kennedy School of Government on the banks of the Charles River last Thursday. From early morning until late at night they met with experts, discussing such issues as inflation, the budget, social security, tax policy, agricultural policy, the environment, the courts, the news media, national defense, and foreign relations.

For many of the soon-to-be congressmen, the discussions have been sobering. After sitting through sessions on the budget, Terry L. Bruce (D) of Illinois said, ''I didn't know the problems were this big.'' He says he has already found ''it's a lot easier to cut the defense budget as a candidate than as a congressman.''

Although the sessions have been tough, he says the lectures have given the representatives much-needed background on a broad range of ''hot topics.''

And, he says, among the speakers ''there are no good-news guys.'' Speakers included educators, such as Lawrence H. Tribe and James Verdier; members of Congress, such as Barber Conable (R) of New York and Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin; present and former administration officials, such as Martin Feldstein and William Brock; and media representatives, such as Roger Mudd.

For some, the discussions have been wearying. Sprawled out in an easy chair during a short break between sessions on ''International Energy Security'' and ''Nuclear Weapons Issues,'' Richard H. Stallings (D) of Idaho admitted that this program was the quickest way to ''get an overview of key issues.'' But, he adds, maybe there's ''a little overkill. They're throwing a great deal at us.''

Charles Trueheart, associate director of the institute, says the program has several aims. ''The week gives new members a head start on the issues they'll be facing.'' Elected officials may know about many issues. But there will be others they need to know more about.

In addition to giving them background, Mr. Trueheart says, ''we want to expose them to various schools of thought.'' In many of the sessions, speakers representing both conservative and liberal viewpoints led discussions.

Most of the representatives found the program well balanced. Mr. Stallings says the sessions have ''offered . . . a good split of views.''

And David S. Monson, a self-described ''Ronald Reagan Republican'' from Utah, says the sessions ''helped me understand how others think. They've helped balance my conservative philosophies,'' he says.

Trueheart says the program is structured within ''the context of the legislative agenda.'' The speakers are presenting issues the new congressmen are likely to face during the coming session, he says.

But the program is ''not a one-way street,'' he adds. Harvard students and faculty members benefit by having an opportunity to meet with and talk to the representatives. And the faculty at the institute ''learns a lot about the political process,'' he adds.

Many of these soon-to-be representatives are clearly looking forward to entering Congress. Yet they also say they are realistic about the demands of the office.

Joe Barton (R) of Texas says next year ''will not be a fun year to be in Congress. All the issues that were put on the back burner, such as the environment, defense, and banking deregulation, will be picked up,'' he says.

Nor do the representatives appear to have illusions as to their power. Mr. Bruce, who defeated incumbent Republican Daniel B. Crane in Illinois, says the freshmen are all ''bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. But we, as a freshman class, can't solve all the problems.'' He says they do hope to have ''some impact.''

For most of the group, the budget is the primary issue. Tommy Robinson (D) of Arkansas says his priorities will match those of ''every district in the country - dealing with the budget in the short term and reducing the deficit in the long term.'' This stern sheriff from Pulaski County says the new congressmen will have to join the other members in making ''tough, unpopular'' decisions.

Republicans and Democrats alike spoke of the need for biting the budget bullet. Mr. Barton says the 99th Congress will have to ''do everything possible to reduce spending.'' He says budget cuts will have to be made across the board, in defense spending as well as in social programs.

As a ''very conservative Republican,'' he says, he is not ''railing against (social) programs. All those programs are good,'' he says. ''They help people. But if you can't pay for them,'' some will have to be cut.

For other members of this class, the budget takes a back seat to local issues. For instance, Peter J. Visclosky (D) of Indiana says his top priority will be to seek a ''national steel policy.'' The largest city in his district, Gary, was founded by United States Steel in 1906. If anything, he says, the district is ''more dependent on steel than ever before.''

Beyond working for a steel policy, he says his long-term goal is to help ''revitalize northwestern Indiana.''

Stallings of Idaho is concerned with agriculture. Farmers in his state have been having a ''very, very hard time,'' he says. Their primary need is for lower interest rates, he says. He will also work for a strong agriculture reform bill next year, he says.

Other representatives have set their sights on helping farmers. Jan Meyers (R) of Kansas, one of the two new women representatives, says her district, which includes Kansas City, is mostly urban. But, she says, Kansas farmers export two-thirds of the grain they produce. The deficit and overvalued dollar hinder this, she says.

Her ''constituency is interested in reducing the deficit and controlling the budget,'' she adds. Her work toward that goal will satisfy her urban constituents, she says, as well as help farmers across the state.

Vincente (Ben) Blaz (R) of Guam has an altogether different set of priorities. He says he ''wants to attain for our territory a new status - a commonwealth status.'' This would be a closer relationship with the United States, he says. But this retired US Marine Corps brigadier general is not advocating statehood for the small Pacific island.

Mr. Blaz says residents of Guam are really ''associate citizens.'' They may serve in the armed forces, but ''they cannot vote for president,'' he says. Although Blaz ''is called a congressman and is paid as a congressman,'' he has no vote in Congress. A closer relationship with the US ''would grant us greater opportunities to develop ourselves economically,'' he says.

Beyond the briefing sessions, some of the representatives found other benefits from the program. Texan Barton says he enjoyed mingling with the Democratic freshmen - getting to know them as ''colleagues and not as adversaries.'' His view is echoed by Indiana's Mr. Visclosky. He says it's a ''great opportunity to meet with the other freshmen. When we get back to Washington,'' he says, ''we'll be separated (according to party) by building, floor, and committee.''

But he also says he appreciates the time the conference has given him to ''think.'' Time constraints on a candidate and on the elected representative are fantastic, he says.

Harvard's is not the only orientation program for the new representatives. The Committee on House Administration recently spent a week teaching them how the House functions. Nor is that all. Fred J. Eckert (R) of New York says two piles of mail start to stack up after a candidate is elected. The first is a pile of resumes from would-be aides. The second, he says, are invitations.

The Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute will sponsor an orientation program in January, Mr. Eckert says. The University of Miami plans a forum on Central American issues. And George Washington University has a conference on scientific issues scheduled for the congressmen.

Catching their breath between briefing sessions, both Eckert and Stallings said that, as busy as they were, they would attend the other conferences as well.

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