House rookie with U-Haul finds home on Capitol Hill

REP. Richard Stallings, a rookie congressman from Idaho, has goals, drive, and a desire to serve the people. What he doesn't have is furniture.

Movers wanted $5,000 to cart Representative Stallings's household goods from his Idaho district to Washington, D.C. Rather than spend that much money, he loaded a few crucial items into a U-Haul and had his press secretary haul them cross-country.

``We've moved a big part of our house in suitcases,'' Stallings says. ``We take empty suitcases home on the plane and bring them back full.''

As Stallings and his 32 fellow first-term representatives have recently discovered, winning an election is only the beginning. The really tough job is learning to be a member of Congress.

Rookies must set up an office, find a place to live, lobby for committee spots, and learn the fine points of US Central American policy, all in a matter of weeks. These early decisions have a great impact on how successful their first term will be -- and whether there will be a second one.

``This period,'' says a training manual for new members, ``has been aptly compared to building a ship while it is already in the water.''

Stallings's experience is a fine example of what freshmen go through. Stallings, a large-boned and friendly history professor, had never even visited Washington until two years ago, when he came seeking support for his first congressional race.

A Democrat, he represents Idaho's Second District, which includes the Sun Valley ski resort and is the size of Pennsylvania. He defeated incumbent Rep. George Hansen (R), a man who, in the words of the Almanac of American Politics, was ``one of Congress's authentic zanies.''

During the Iran hostage crisis, Representative Hansen showed up in Tehran and began issuing press releases. Convicted last May of filing false financial disclosure forms, he lost to Stallings by a mere 170 votes.

The new member from Idaho has had the usual troubles finding his way on Washington's confusing angled avenues. He and his wife had no difficulty finding a town house to rent, but they have discovered the hazards of trying to maintain two households thousands of miles apart. First, the pipes froze in their Rexburg, Idaho, home. Then part of the basement ceiling fell in.

``I go home every so often and make major repairs on what's happened in my absence,'' Stallings says.

In years past, job training for congressmen was a matter of shutting up and listening to your party leaders tell you how to vote. Today, with every member a subcommittee chairman, legislative orientation is much more organized. Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government holds a two-week session on issues for new members, flooding them with information about medicare costs, tax reform, and the intentions of the Sandinista leadership.

A consortium of think tanks holds a similar session in Williamsburg, Va. The House Administration Committee teaches how to set up an office. George Washington University this year held a science seminar.

``The schedule was a little overwhelming,'' says first-term Rep. Helen Bentley (R) of Maryland.

Stallings, as someone who has taught history, economics, and political science to junior-college students for 15 years, knows the value of a good seminar as well as the next congressman. Harvard's intense sessions, he says, didn't necessarily make him on instant expert on major issues. ``But I know where to turn to find the information,'' he says. ``That's the really frightening part of the job,'' he adds. ``There's so much to know.''

Because there are so many decisions every session (there are now about 1,300 recorded votes per Congress), members clearly can have more impact if they specialize. And committee assignments often dictate what a member can specialize in -- indeed, what he can accomplish at all.

Stallings was fortunate in his committee assignments. The Democratic Steering Committee, sensitive to his slim margin of victory, gave him his first choices: Science and Technology, for a minor committee, and Agriculture, for his major panel spot.

Both positions are relevant to Idaho, Stallings asserts. He hopes that on Science and Technology he will be able to support the Idaho National Engineering Lab, a large nuclear research center that is a major employer in his district. Several high-tech industries, he points out, are locating in Boise Valley.

And agriculture is the dominant industry in his state. It is, however, an industry in crisis. Thus, Stallings has had a crash course in farm finance. He has cosponsored an emergency agriculture aid bill, and he spent much of a recent break touring farmers' meetings.

So that he can better help the farmers of his district, says Stallings, he has hired several agricultural specialists to staff his district offices. Most members of Congress have one or two offices back home, to handle constituent requests; Stallings, because of his slim victory and the size of his territory, has four.

In Washington, Stallings's base is Suite 1233 in the House's Longworth Office Building. Longworth, which has numerous mice and an electrical system so old it could have been installed by Thomas Edison himself, is where most new members have to have their offices.

``But I'd be happy in a broom closet, frankly,'' Stallings claims.

Of his eight Washington staff members, five have Idaho connections. Their primary mission will be answering mail from home. Rookie House offices, especially, live in terror of the four daily mail deliveries. If you don't handle the mail efficiently, it can swamp you. If you don't handle it all, you may not be reelected.

``How you treat [the mail] . . . is likely to be one of the most important decisions you will make in your first term in Congress,'' warns a primer for rookie members prepared by the Congressional Management Foundation.

Stallings had never been elected to office before. Outside of a stint as history department chairman, he had little management experience. He admits that it will be hard for him to win a second term, as his district is one of the most Republican in the nation. He claims he has no desire to be House speaker, or even a long-term member.

``I would like to be somewhat of an authority -- so that when I spoke, the other congressmen would respect where I was coming from,'' he says. -- 30 --

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to House rookie with U-Haul finds home on Capitol Hill
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today