Newly elected members of the 117th Congress convened virtually earlier this month for a bipartisan orientation hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics.
Held online for the first time in its 48 year history, the orientation, which took place this year from Dec. 7 to Dec. 15, strives to acquaint representatives-elect with their colleagues, spark discussions on various policy issues, and bridge the gap between politics and academics by introducing the perspectives of Harvard faculty.
Over the course of the program, Harvard affiliates — including Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf, Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership Wendy R. Sherman, and School of Public Health adjunct professor Ashish K. Jha — led a series of talks ranging from the United States’ role in the world to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing recession on vulnerable Americans.
University President Lawrence S. Bacow hosted a closing conversation. Other panelists included incoming White House Chief of Staff Ronald A. Klain and four current members of Congress: Daniel R. Crenshaw (R-Texas), Joseph P. Kennedy III (D-Mass.), Ayanna S. Pressley (D-Mass.), and Elise M. Stefanik ’06.
IOP Director Mark D. Gearan ’78 wrote in an emailed statement he was grateful the orientation was able to take place during the health crisis.
“Technology allowed members to join us virtually — from Hawaii to Utah to New Mexico to New York — and to continue the longstanding tradition of newly elected members building connections before they begin their service in Washington,” Gearan wrote. “Based on the individual sessions and feedback we have received, we were pleased that the program was able to meet the goals we set out for this convening.”
Gearan wrote that attendance over Zoom was comparable to in-person orientations in previous years, adding that equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans participated.
Kennedy School Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership Arthur C. Brooks said in an interview that he spoke to the new members about how to reduce polarization in American politics.
“The loudest, most hateful voices are the ones that are getting most of the attention,” Brooks said. “I don’t think that’s what Americans want. I think it’s bad for the country.”
Brooks said the newly elected representatives seemed receptive to his message.
“A lot of them were saying, ‘Yes, this is really why I got into Congress — I love my constituents, and I love my country, and I love even the people who disagree with me, and I want to show that,’ so I was really encouraged,” he said.
Among the invitees who did not attend the IOP’s program was Marjorie Taylor Greene, the incoming representative for Georgia’s 14th Congressional District and noted supporter of the conspiracy theory group QAnon, according to a spokesperson who declined to comment on why Greene declined her invitation.
High-profile incoming members of Congress have taken issue with aspects of the program in previous years.
In 2018, then-freshman Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) took to Twitter to criticize the orientation for featuring speeches by powerful corporate leaders while not giving a platform to labor activists.
Brooks said typical in-person engagement was difficult to replicate over Zoom. Still, he said he was happy the event proceeded and that he was able to participate in it.
“It was less interactive than it would be ordinarily because you just get more high quality human interaction where people are hanging out between the meetings,” Brooks said. “You prefer to be able to do it in person, but it’s worth doing even if you can’t.”
Gearan wrote that future members of Congress will benefit from a return to in-person orientations.
“Like students anxious to return to campus for in-person instruction, I suspect new members of the 118th Congress will look forward to coming to Cambridge in 2022,” he wrote.
The 117th Congress will convene in January 2021.