Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Segregation on Capitol Hill: Democrats and Republicans kept apart from the start

Newly-elected Democratic Congressman Raul Ruiz has made a few Republican friends during orientation in D.C., but he won't name them because cross-party fraternization is frowned upon.

This week, California’s 14 freshman members of Congress are back in Washington for a second week of orientation. But much of the training is segregated, with Democrats on one side of Capitol Hill and Republicans on another.

During morning sessions, the newbies all learn about setting up a website, how to send constituent mail, how to staff an office. But from lunchtime until late into the evening, Democrats and Republicans are separated. 

Republican Congressman Doug LaMalfa of Redding says, during afternoons with his GOP colleagues, he's witnessed the "hot debate" about conference rules and amendments. "They didn’t take very long to get the verbosity up here," he observed.

Even the meals are segregated.  Speaker John Boehner’s fancy dinner for newcomers in Statuary Hall was GOP only; Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi held her own party for Democratic freshmen.

Meeting new members from the other side isn’t easy. Member-elect Mark Takano, a Democrat from Riverside, says he's met one Republican. "I don’t remember his name – a guy from Florida who was impressed that I was not a lawyer." He says his being a teacher made an impression with the GOP freshman's wife.

A fellow Democrat, freshman Raul Ruiz of Palm Springs, says he's found a few Republican friends. "I’m really hopeful that we can get a cup of coffee soon." But he declined to name his new GOP pals. "I’d rather not," Ruiz says. "I’m learning the ropes here so I don’t want to get anybody in trouble."

It wasn’t always this way. Back in the 1970s and ‘80s, after Congressional staffers gave freshmen the basics, representatives from Harvard University would come in to present the larger political overview.

Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says new lawmakers -- both Democrats and Republicans -- were then whisked away to colonial Williamsburg where various non-partisan experts gave lectures on politics. But Ornstein says in 1994, "with the Gingrich revolution — the first Republican House in 40 years, a new Republican Senate — we saw a very different orientation. The Heritage Foundation said no more of these namby-pamby orientations. We want one of our own."

The conservative think tank scheduled its briefings at the same time as Harvard’s and most of the GOP freshmen attended the Heritage sessions. Ornstein says from that time on, orientations were political and ideological — part of a larger move, he says, that made politics not just partisan, but tribal. "Whatever they want, we don’t want. And if we mix with them, we may get their cooties."

It’s the bitter partisan atmosphere that pervades Capitol Hill today. And it’s well-in-place for the Congressional class of 2013.

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