Fresh off their summer recess, congresspeople returned to Washington this week with a mixture of enthusiasm for the new year and the usual spate of confusion following such a long layoff.
As might be expected, Tuesday’s first day was filled more with uncertainty than with getting down to work, as legislators struggled with new schedules, new subjects and becoming comfortable with new routines.
“It’s natural that there’s a bit of disorder on the first day,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “But by the end of this week, I feel confident we’ll be back to the same dysfunctional body we were before the recess.”
There are no new members in the returning 112th Congress. However, the five-week August vacation has always caused some rough patches, and this year’s return could be especially bumpy because so many freshmen Republicans were not especially bright to begin with.
“We planned on the first few weeks being remedial work, with lots of review,” said House sergeant-at-arms Bill Livingood. “It can be tough getting the guys back on task after they’ve spent the summer swimming, camping, playing stickball and such. I’m confident they’ll be back to square one by no later than Thanksgiving.”
Evidence of bewilderment was not hard to find Tuesday.
“I couldn’t find my new committee room,” complained Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.). “I thought it was on the second floor but I couldn’t find the ‘up’ staircase, and a guy on the ‘down’ stairs gave me a noogie when I tried to get past him.
“It hurt,” he added. “I’m telling.”
Rep. Rick Berg (R-N.D.) said he didn’t know representatives were going to be assigned new lockers over the break, and was disturbed to find that authorities had cut off his old combination lock and given the space to someone new.
“I had that combination memorized, too,” Berg said. “Now my mom is going to have to buy a new one, and she’s going to be mad.”
Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) said he brought the same supplies he did on the first day after the spring recess, but these turned out to be all wrong.
“Apparently, I have to have college-ruled notebook paper, not standard-ruled,” Price complained. “Also, I’m not sure I have enough crayons in the 24-pack that I bought. And to top it off, I got my compass confiscated at security because it was too pointy.”
On the other side of the Capitol, incoming senators were also wrestling with the after-effects of vacation.
“They gave me a new bill to read and, when I opened it up, there was a big wad of gum right in the middle of the enacting clause,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kent.). “As a good fiscal conservative, I didn’t want it to go to waste so I dug it out and started chewing on it rather than appropriating funds for a new piece. But I didn’t like it. Sour apple is not my favorite flavor.”
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who inherited a desk used earlier this year by Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell, grumbled that graffiti carved into his hardwood desktop made it difficult for him to do his penmanship exercises.
“All over the top, there’s ‘I ♥ Sarah’ and ‘Mr. Mitchell M. Palin’,” Schumer told reporters. “He should get in trouble for that.”
As rough as it was in the morning of the first day, things got even worse when lunchtime arrived. Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) forgot his lunch money, while Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) discovered a baloney sandwich in his lunchbox “even though my mom knows I hate baloney.”
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) complained that fellow Republican Reid Ribble of Colorado tried to cut in front of him in the lunch line “even though I told him ‘no butts.'” And the House’s only openly gay legislator, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), was confused about where to sit under the new boy-girl-boy-girl seating pattern mandated by reforms passed last year.
By the afternoon, though, some semblance of normality seemed to be returning. Several subcommittee meetings went off with barely a hitch, despite complaints from a handful of junior members that “the chairman hates me” or “I didn’t know that subject (commerce, manufacturing and trade) would be so hard.”
“You could tell by the end of the day that we’re already getting back to usual,” House sergeant Livingood said. “We were down to the petty stuff by then, stuff like ‘those super-committee guys (members of the joint select committee on deficit reduction named as part of the debt ceiling compromise) are so conceited.’
“I bet by the end of the week, we’ll be completely back to normal,” he continued. “And, of course, by ‘normal’ I mean totally out of touch with the American people, concerned only about their re-election and how much partisan bickering they can get into without being called into someone’s office.”