THIS DECEMBER, the Institute of Politics continued a longstanding tradition: welcoming a group of newly elected members of Congress to the Harvard Kennedy School campus. Thirty-five newly elected representatives attended a three-day intensive session designed to brief them on their new roles in Washington and introduce them to their new colleagues. David King, senior lecturer in public policy, spoke to the HKS communications team about the event, which he chaired.

Q: How did this event begin and how has it evolved over the years?

The Bipartisan Program for Newly Elected Members of Congress has been happening every other year since 1972, with the exception of 1994. The idea was to work with Republican and Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives on a set of policy briefings for things the new members would face as soon as they got to Washington. We still do some of that, though we now focus more on the long-term consequences of policies the members will confront over the arc of their careers.

Q: What issues does the conference curriculum cover? 

We tend to have sessions about policies, about working with other members, and about the logistics of running an office. Policy briefings bring together experts to talk about the economy, national security, the environment, health, and other issues. We always try to underscore areas in which there’s consensus about where the country is heading and what can be done. Partisanship can be poisonous, and so we structure the days to have Republicans and Democrats learn about each other as people – not as caricatures. This is the first extended time that the new members spend with folks from the other party.

Q: What do you think is the most valuable aspect of the conference for the new members?

We hear the same thing every time: New members deeply value the chance to get to know each other as real human beings. Most new members no longer live in Washington, so they do not spend evenings and weekends with each other. The friendships that emerge out of the Harvard program seem to have lasting value, and members are significantly more likely to work together if they’ve been here together. 

Q: Can you talk about the bipartisan nature of the event?

We make a real effort to reach out to all new members, and we have never run the program with only Democrats or only Republicans. Our partnerships with the American Enterprise Institute and the Congressional Institute have helped signal to Republicans that HKS is a safe place for dialogue. Frankly, the more important divide is not between the parties, but between Congress and the Executive Branch. Congress – the first branch of government – has ceded a lot of authority to the White House. A well-functioning Congress is vital if we are going to check the executive branch’s authority.

Q: Are there any surprising or unexpected elements of the conference?

I was pleasantly surprised by how open the new members were to each other’s stories. They understand that Congress is in trouble, that the country is at a crossroads, and that this election was not typical. They left Harvard holding hands, and we are going to keep working with the Congress to keep them in touch with each other.

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