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Orientation Programs

Photo of J. Mark Trice, Secretary of the Senate

Post-election orientation programs provide new members a foretaste of Senate traditions. Prior to 1976, beginning members looked to the other senator from their states, or to party officials, for advice on how to survive in this unfamiliar environment. Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater recalled how deeply he valued this assistance.

Early in January 1953, a very frightened and somewhat timid desert rat landed in Washington, feeling as out of place as anyone possibly could. I had not been in my hotel room 15 minutes when the phone rang and the voice at the other end said, "This is Mark Trice." I wondered then who that could be. He immediately told me that he was Secretary of the Senate and his interest that morning was in helping me to get started. He came to me like a life ring comes to a drowning man.

The 1976 election produced 17 new members–the largest infusion in 18 years. The next two elections generated even larger classes, with 20 in 1978 and 18 in 1980. These three elections, along with the 1980 change in party control for the first time in 26 years, encouraged Senate officials to develop well-organized and responsive welcoming programs. (In years with smaller classes, such as 1990 with only four new members, the programs have necessarily been less formal.)

Typically, these programs cover several days in November or December and coincide with party leadership elections. Presenters range from the party floor leaders to veterans of the most recent previous freshman class. Sessions span a host of practical topics from "parliamentary procedure" and "setting up a new office," to "life in the Senate." In addition to this bipartisan, Senate-wide program, each of the two political parties organizes briefings and retreats.

In December 1996, Senate party leaders asked Senator Robert C. Byrd–who subsequently became the longest-serving member in Senate history–to brief new senators. At a closed meeting in the Senate Chamber, that 15-member class received the following advice, which was later published in the Congressional Record.

Service in this body is a supreme honor. It is also a burden and a serious responsibility. Members' lives become open for inspection and are used as examples for other citizens to emulate. A Senator must really be much more than hardworking, much more than conscientious, much more than dutiful. A Senator must reach for noble qualities–honor, total dedication, self-discipline, extreme selflessness, exemplary patriotism, sober judgement, and intellectual honesty. The Senate is more important than any one, or all, of us. . . . Each of us has a solemn responsibility to remember that, and to remember it often.

The Senate and, therefore, Senators were intended to take the long view and to be able to resist, if need be, the passions of the often intemperate House. Few, if any, upper chambers in the history of the western world have possessed the Senate's absolute right to unlimited debate and to amend and block legislation passed by a lower House. . . . [Its] deference to minority views sharply distinguishes the Senate from the majoritarian House of Representatives. The Framers recognized that a minority can be right and that a majority can be wrong.

The pressures on you will, at times, be enormous. . . . A Senator's attention today is fractured beyond belief. . . . But, somehow, amidst all the noise and confusion, you must find the time to reflect, to study, to read, and especially to understand the absolutely critically important institutional role of the Senate.

The Senate is often soundly castigated for its inefficiency, but in fact, it was never intended to be efficient. Its purpose was and is to examine, consider, protect, and be a totally independent source of wisdom and judgement on the actions of the lower house and on the executive. As such, the Senate is the central pillar of our Constitutional system. I hope that you, as new members, will study the Senate in its institutional context, because that is the best way to understand your personal role as a United States Senator.

Baker, Richard A. The New Members' Guide to Traditions of the United States Senate. (Washington, GPO, 2006. S.Pub. 109-25), 2.