GOP Freshmen in House Carry the Clout of Seniors

IT'S been called the ''goat'' office. Located on the second-floor of the Longworth Office Building, it is not much more than a college dorm room. In fact, it won't even hold a full congressional staff.

Yet, in one of the biannual rituals of Washington, the office is given out along with all the others for first-time members in a House lottery. This year's recipient, though, doesn't seem to mind her un-Hilton-like surroundings.

''I've been in politics for a long time, and I've learned to put a smile on my face and work under any conditions,'' says Andrea Seastrand, a GOP freshman from California.

Her nonplussed response may be symbolic of the incoming GOP freshman class. Its 73 members promise to command more clout than perhaps any incoming class in modern United States history.

Many will serve as shock troops for Speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia. They will be fighting for passage of the 10-point ''Contract With America'' that many of them pushed hard during their winning campaigns.

In return for such loyalty, Speaker Gingrich and the GOP House leadership promise to be very, very good to their newest colleagues. ''The power that has been given to the freshmen is unprecedented this century,'' says James Thurber, a political scientist at American University here.

Some analysts are skeptical about the newcomers' power, saying that every freshman class promises sweeping changes only to be drummed into line by their seniors. They point to the 1992 Democratic freshmen who arrived in Congress vowing institutional reforms, only to be co-opted by their leadership.

But this year's freshmen, more conservative and younger than previous GOP classes, are a major force behind Republican reforms on the Hill. They rallied around efforts to eliminate funding for 28 House caucuses, sell a congressional building, and suspend commemorative legislation sometimes used to curry political favor with interest groups by marking historic events.

A TOTAL of 20 freshmen have been named to the four most powerful House committees, a measure of the importance their class represents to the new leadership in an institution where influence has traditionally taken years to secure. Rep.-elect Enid Green Waldholtz of Utah is the first GOP newcomer tapped for the Rules Committee since 1915.

For the first time in this century, Republican freshmen have been appointed to the House's four most powerful committees: Ways and Means, Appropriations, Commerce, and Rules.

''It may be the most significant investment of authority in a freshman class this century,'' says Bill Myers, vice president of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, the think tank that distributes Gingrich's video lecture series ''Renewing American Civilization.''

The ways and means, appropriations, and commerce panels oversee all tax and spending legislation. The Rules Committee determines what bills make it to the House floor for a vote.

By placing freshmen on all four, Gingrich is ensuring them input in the passage of the major Contract legislation.

''It used to be that you had to serve 20 years to get influence. This is a breath of fresh air,'' says Frank Luntz, a pollster close to Mr. Gingrich. ''It shows a change of business as usual.''

The newcomers' influence derives mostly from the size of their class. Combined with their sophomore colleagues, they will make up more than half of the House's incoming 230-seat majority.

''If that majority sticks together,'' Mr. Luntz says, ''it will drive the Republican agenda.''

''The leadership is using [the GOP freshmen] to pursue change and that is quite different,'' says Professor Thurber. ''It gives both them and the leadership power.''

The GOP freshmen's power is also rooted in the close working relationship they have forged with their ideological captain and campaign supporter, Mr. Gingrich, and a shared realization that their political futures hang on fulfilling vows to change Washington. But the relationship is a two-way street, underscored by the ''Majority Maker'' buttons that many of the freshmen wear.

''Our leadership has been released from its chains and we were the force that released them,'' says Rep.-elect John Ensign of Nevada. ''If they don't do what they told us they want to do, we can hold them accountable.''

Gingrich has so far gone to great lengths to accommodate the newcomers. He has listened to their ideas and given them a degree of influence their predecessors never enjoyed.

''Not only is our class very large and very unified, we also have a leadership that instead of pushing the old iron fist on us, is encouraging us and empowering us to come in and accomplish what we want to accomplish,'' Mr. Ensign says.

Like her new colleagues, Mrs. Seastrand is eager to get going.

''It doesn't matter what office we get, my staff and I are determined to do our best work'' she says.

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