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New House members wrap up orientation

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CAMBRIDGE, Ma. – Twenty-seven-year old Aaron Schock is a bit of an anomaly among his fellow incoming freshmen members of the U.S. House. As the soon-to-be youngest member of that body, he looks fresh-faced and boyish compared to his more wizened colleagues.

But here on the campus of Harvard University, he blends in better than his peers, mostly middle-aged pols, who trekked to suburban Beantown last week to pick the brains of the country’s most elite policy wonks.

Schock, an Illinois Republican, is one of forty newly-elected representatives who took part in what’s become a rite of passage every two years as congressional seats change hands. After their win and before their January swearing in, the victors head to Harvard for a crash course in policy making. Their agenda is as ambitious as it is broad: understanding the nation’s most pressing policy problems and sorting through recommendations on how to fix them.

Over the past 18 congressional sessions, some 600 lawmakers have been tutored at Harvard by high-powered profs and other policy experts. This year’s conference featured panels on Iraq and Afghanistan, health care policy, intelligence reform and clean energy. No back-to-school experience is complete without field trips, so in between thick-and-heavy policy panels, the members attended events like a tour of the John F. Kennedy library in Boston and breakfast with students from the Harvard Kennedy School.

They also heard from more seasoned soon-to-be colleagues about how to survive political gaming on Capitol Hill, be it maneuvering through the appropriations process or asserting themselves as a greenhorn in D.C.

“It’s been fantastic, a good cross-section of the issues,” said Schock, who also said the best thing from the conference was an introduction to policy experts to tap later on. “Obviously we’re not getting legislation passed, but it’s a very similar dissection of the issues as we’d see in committee.”

But not all sessions garnered rapt attention from these freshmen. During a panel on understanding the economic crisis, new members were fidgeting—some checking blackberries and cell phones, reading newspapers, a few getting up repeatedly to take phone calls.

The class looked eerily similar to a committee hearing on Capitol Hill, where distracted members –those who do decide to show up – bustle in and out for votes, shuffle papers and confer with staffers.

But perhaps the new members couldn’t be entirely blamed, at least for this session featuring such a glum subject. The four professors leading the discussion—three economists and an attorney—attempted to explain to lawmakers what caused the current economic meltdown.

“Nobody thoroughly understands the economic crisis,” said Jeffrey Frankel, an economics professor who pinned the recession on problems like underestimated financial risks and households saving too little and borrowing too much. Frankel said the recession is likely to continue until mid 2009.

Harvard economics professor Gregory Mankiw said the housing crisis was caused in part by financial institutions being caught off guard by a dramatic, 20 percent drop in housing prices. However, he said, things will get better and will not bottom out as in the stock market crash of 1929.

“I’m not forecasting another Great Depression, but take that with a very large grain of salt,” said Mankiw, noting that Depression-era economists were unable to forecast Black Thursday.

The newly-anointed lawmakers burst into applause after hearing from Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law professor and chairwoman of the oversight panel monitoring the recently-passed federal Wall Street bailout package.

During her address, Warren humanized the effects of the financial turmoil, focusing on flat wages for middle-class workers and rising costs for healthcare, transportation and housing. She also condemned predatory, confusing and complicated lending practices by credit card companies and other financial institutions.

“We are regulating consumer financial products absolutely the wrong way,” Warren said. “We have lost our regulatory way in this area, and the American consumer has paid for it.”

After panelists spoke, new House members were invited to pose questions. Incoming Rep. Jared Polis, Colorado Democrat, asked the experts what it would like if Detroit automakers went through bankruptcy.

Warren said bankruptcy in itself is just a process for giving a structured way to reshape business and force management to come up with a plan. She also said the advantage of a post-bankruptcy company is that obtaining financing after filing is easier because bankrupt companies are marked high priority and it is easier to infuse cash quickly into a flagging firm.

“This was an opportunity to hear from top policy experts,” said Polis, who also noted that perhaps the best reason for last week’s conference was a chance to get to know other incoming lawmakers. “These are people we are going to be working with for years to come,” he said.

“It’s good that we’ve had an introduction.” Schock echoed Polis, saying the week was valuable because it allowed members from opposite sides of the aisle to mingle in unconventional ways, like his swimming laps with Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick of Arizona. “I’m pretty sure that won’t be happening in D.C.,” Schock joked.

Kirkpatrick, for her part, said she also enjoyed the chance to build connections with other lawmakers-to-be. “What I’ve been focusing on is making those relationships to help improve my district,” she said. “This has been an excellent program and I feel so blessed to be here.”

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