WASHINGTON – Although John Sarbanes knew the surroundings — he is, after all, the son of retiring Sen. Paul Sarbanes — everything about the Capitol this week took on a new perspective now that he is a member of Congress.
From choosing an office to voting for the new majority leader, it was all different being a participant, and not just an observer.
As the only Maryland freshman in the House of the Representatives this coming term, Sarbanes spent the past week with about 50 new members, learning how to put his office together, balance his personal time with public duties and find his way to the restroom.
“There is an extra element of excitement because I’ve been around for so many years, but not being directly part of it. I’ve certainly been familiar with the awesome responsibilities that are involved, but never directly connected to those,” he said. “To have the opportunity to be a direct participant is certainly a whole new dimension.”
Sarbanes was elected to represent Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District on Nov. 7, beating John White with 64 percent of the vote to replace Ben Cardin, who is the state’s new U.S. senator.
Voting for Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, as new majority leader, capped the orientation week.
“It was certainly the high point of the week of activities for the freshmen representatives to be part of the leadership election and decision,” he said.
Sarbanes also participated in the “big roar of acclamation” Democrat Joe Courtney received at a freshmen’s reception. Courtney was attending orientation without knowing if he had won his race in Connecticut, and he became the center of every joke in the class when he won by about 200 votes.
As a new congressman, Sarbanes also checked out the office he would like to use, but the one he got was decided in a lottery where freshmen “won” the offices remaining after current members claimed theirs.
“Nobody has high expectations, because we are obviously the bottom of the pecking order,” he said.
Knowing that he needs to learn more about his new work — “this is the real deal now,” he said, Sarbanes took a notebook and a pen, and drove from Baltimore City to Capitol Hill every day to attend classes.
“You get to be together with other folks that are doing this for the first time and don’t know where the men’s or ladies’ rooms are yet,” he said.
Current congressmen lectured about being a committee member and about “quality of life, meaning the trickiness of balancing personal time and your public duties and commitments, and make sure you balance that in a healthy way,” Sarbanes said.
Experienced representatives gave Sarbanes what he considers the best advice.
“The message I am taking from all of them is how critical it is to come into this with a sense of humility, and have a sense of humility when you interact with your colleagues and certainly have it when you interact with your voters and constituencies,” he said. “And if you ever loose that, you risk becoming disconnected from the voters and disconnected from the issues that matter to them.”
Classes helped unite the group, as the freshmen spent time together not only in class and receptions, but also at a common service center in the Cannon Building.
“There is a sort of an organic feel of the class in the sense of people who just step forward because they have the opportunity and they were fed up with the direction things were going in, and they thought ‘Maybe I can be the one that can make a difference,” he said. “I’m excited about what this class can contribute.”
Some classes were held for Democrats and Republicans together, which gave Sarbanes a sense of what their relationship might be since next January.
“There is a real readiness to reach across the aisle on the part of the people in my class,” he said. “You hear it in the comments from my classmates. They are ready to get things done.”