Professor David King reflects on the December reception for newly-elected members of Congress at Harvard

By Zachary Crowley, MC/MPA’13

If you have had the opportunity to speak with David King, you know he tells it to you straight.  So when he responded to this reporter’s prying question with “You know I can’t talk about that,” I knew I was on to something interesting.

King wears many hats.  In addition to his teaching and his Senior Executive and MPA program duties, he is the Faculty Chair of the Bi-Partisan Program for Newly Elected Members of Congress.

Greg Mankiw, Carmen Reinhart and David Ellwood speak to the new members of Congress about the economy. Photo by Martha Stewart

Greg Mankiw, Carmen Reinhart and David Ellwood speak to the new members of Congress about the economy. Photo by Martha Stewart

He is well qualified for the job, with long years of experience working with elected officials.  In fact, as we spoke, a just-elected member of the Massachusetts State Legislature wandered in – a former MPP – to talk shop. But don’t make the mistake, warned King, of thinking he is the one responsible for a successful New Members of Congress Program.

The success of this program is due to the hard work of the Institute of Politics (IOP), he said, and the staff and students there deserve a great deal of credit. In particular, he applauded Program Director Christian Flynn: “Christian Flynn makes the program happen, and without him, nothing would get done.”

So what was it like behind the scenes at Harvard’s December forum for new members of the United States Congress? According to King, there were the customary receptions and meals, and in between, the new representatives were introduced to many of the academics here at Harvard as well as other public luminaries. They talked about the economy, foreign policy and how to responsibly manage the American budget.

I wondered, what did the IOP hope the Members would gain from these talks?

King pointed me to previously published comments in Conversations with Great Teachers, a series of interviews collected by Bill Smoot in 2010.

There I found that the first order of business is to give members an overview of how the budget can be manipulated to serve re-election interests – and how that manipulation can be dangerous for the national interest.

Next, the agenda moves to a discussion on the long-term needs of the nation, providing attendees a sense of what the country will look like down the road.

“We map out – from the very best scholars that we can find …what the world will look like in twenty years in terms of genetic research, population growth, the economic impact of globalization, environmental affairs.  And what can we do right now, or in the next ten to fifteen years, that will move the needle in one direction or another?”  Smoot wrote.

Last, the forum looks at living in Washington, D.C. as an elected official – how to keep your family life stable, and how to make relationships across the aisle.

That’s about when I asked King the natural question – did the New Members Program include back rooms filled with cigar smoke and swirling snifters of brandy? King declined to talk specifics, but he did say that backroom moments do happen at events like this, and that this group of members was more experienced and collegial than they have been in recent years.

“Backroom moments do happen.  There was a sense of collegiality this year that we have not seen in the last ten years …Most of the new members have paid their dues for a long time in the farm system.  There was a sense of collegiality within each caucus and across the aisle…”

However, lamented King, those relationships formed at Harvard sometimes have trouble surviving in hyper-partisan Washington. He speculated that the low-pressure atmosphere at Harvard, coupled with the gentle prodding of looking 20 years into the future – rather than fighting today’s partisan issues – allowed Members a chance to get comfortable.

“You get to see the Members as people here – they’re much more likely to get vulnerable …to be frank about the struggles they had, or why they ran for office.  It’s not a stump speech, because it is unseemly to deliver a stump speech to your colleagues… They are much more likely to be genuine with each other and that’s really refreshing.”

I observed that the event was prominently billed as “bi-partisan”, and that Billy Long, a Republican from Missouri, was featured in a web video advertising the event to conservatives. King expressed his admiration for Long, before he talked about the differences between this year’s crop of new members, and the 2010 crowd.

“Billy Long is great,” King said. “He’s really an interesting Member.  He’s thoughtful, comes from Branson, MO, and he has the gift of gab.  He was elected with a Tea Party coalition. But here’s a guy who knows politics inside and out: He was a talk show personality. He comes from an Ivy League family. He can speak in ways that people understand back home, and speak in ways that are effective in Washington. It is a very good, home-style, Washington-style combination.

“He was here in 2010,” King continued. “2010 was the most ideologically divided, but that was because of the Tea Party contingent. This Congress will probably be as polarized as any we’ve seen for years, and yet the new Members themselves haven’t been put into such a divisive institution yet: The institution forces one to take sides, and makes compromise very difficult.”

Perhaps, as the 113th Congress tackles seemingly intractable issues like fiscal cliffs and gun violence, the new Members can take a page from the design of the IOP’s Bi-Partisan Program here at Harvard, and help the House Leadership take a longer, more comfortable, nonpartisan view of the problems our country faces.

Of course, it seems as though the chances of that happening are about as likely as David King speaking freely to the Citizen on what went on with the New Members behind closed doors.  Still, a reporter can dream.