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California House freshmen settling in on Capitol Hill

Freshman Republican Congressman Doug LaMalfa says voting was more clear in the California legislature where you knew
Freshman Republican Congressman Doug LaMalfa says voting was more clear in the California legislature where you knew "what you were voting on."
Kitty Felde/KPCC

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California’s crop of freshmen lawmakers is adjusting to life in Congress. They're still the new kids on the Hill, but after a month in Washington, they've got a sense of how the House works ... and doesn't.

Republican Doug LaMalfa and Democrat Gloria Negrete McLeod aren't rookies in the classic sense: they bring to Washington a combined two decades of legislative experience in Sacramento. But both say lawmaking is different in D.C.

McLeod says the votes come fast, "so you have to really be on your toes to know what you’re voting on." She receives a short synopsis of bills from party leaders, but she makes it a point to go online and read the actual bill and background information. "I want to read what I'm doing," she says.

LaMalfa says "the rule thing" makes voting less than "user friendly" to anyone tuning in to C-SPAN — or for new members learning the ropes. For example, when members cast votes on a Motion to Recommit.

"What does that mean to the average person?" LaMalfa asks. "Why isn’t it just an up or down on yes or no, you’re voting on this bill or this amendment?" He says voting was more clear in the California legislature where you knew "what you were voting on." 

Both members have staked out issues of concern to their constituents: LaMalfa, who represents Redding, wants to tackle flood control and forest management; McLeod, whose district is Ontario, is delving into veterans concerns. But committee work is painfully slow. LaMalfa sits on the Agriculture and Natural Resources committees, but he says they've only done organizing work. McLeod also sits on Agriculture and on Veterans Affairs. She says they've yet to schedule a meeting where they "actually deal with bills."

While both have signed on as co-sponsors to bills, neither has yet  written one of their own. LaMalfa says it’s not a huge priority for him. "There’s 435 of us," he says, "so I don’t have to be a bill machine here." 

On the personal side, the bi-coastal life isn’t easy. LaMalfa has small children back in the district and makes it a point to be at their weekend ballgames. The 71-year old McLeod has been spending her off hours in Washington putting together furniture from Target for a small D.C. apartment. Both freshmen have been whisked away to retreats by their respective parties.

LaMalfa says there are just three ways for a Republican to run into a Democrat in Washington: in committee, on the House floor, or by accident. He says there was more interaction between the two parties in Sacramento. One reason: geography. Back in Sacramento, he says, there are 120 legislators. Senators are all on one side of the building, "and you could walk by their offices all day, stick your head in" and chat.

Here, House members have offices in three different buildings across the street from the Capitol. McLeod says all that walking "is gonna trim me down, just walking all over the place." LaMalfa admits he could go door-to-door in his own building, but "I don't know if the members are ever around."

Later this month, some of the freshmen are organizing a bi-partisan bowling night out as a way to build relationships. But it might not be the right sport for these Californians. McLeod says she doesn't bowl. The last time she tried, she says the ball went over her head and landed in the chairs behind her. "That was my last take at bowling."

LaMalfa says he's "not big into it" either. "If I didn’t have anything else to do, I’d probably go along." He applauds the opportunity to have an "interrelationship" with politicos from the other party. 

The bowling party is scheduled for late February. The next sporting opportunity for the two parties to meet isn’t until summer at the annual Congressional baseball game.