Before the beginning of each new Congress since 1972, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics has hosted the Bipartisan Program for Newly Elected Members of Congress, which bills itself as “the preeminent educational and preparatory program for newly elected Republican and Democratic Members of the House of Representatives.” The institute held its program—co-sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, as well as the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Congressional Institute—for the large incoming class of recently-elected members of Congress this week, and the schedule was designed to foster policy discussions and offer tips for stepping into the new job.
But there was drama.
Some of the most progressive members of the class, including Reps.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, tweeted their displeasure with the program. Ocasio-Cortez criticized the event’s corporate tilt, while Tlaib paraphrased her version of an exchange she had with former Trump economic advisor (and former Goldman Sachs president) Gary Cohn.
The frustrated new members skipped out on some of the events to join protests outside.
The schedule was not listed publicly, and an inquiry to a Harvard press contact for the schedule wasn’t returned. But you can flip through the full itinerary at the bottom.
HuffPost and the Washington Post have reported on many of the most controversial speakers and panels. The very first speaker following welcome remarks was Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. (Ocasio-Cortez, Massachusetts Rep.-elect Ayanna Pressley and others held a presser instead of attending this.) There was a “Discussion with Business Leaders” featuring the CEOs of General Motors, Johnson & Johnson, and Boeing. It’s unclear if these CEOs were able to provide adequate advice to incoming members on how to set up their office phone systems, but GM CEO Mary Barra did tell Tlaib, according to the Post, that “laid off GM workers who live in the Detroit area could still seek employment at a plant in Flint, Mich., more than an hour’s drive away” because it’s “better than not having no job at all.”
The big show came at 4 p.m. on Wednesday during the “White House Congressional Relations: How to Advocate for Your Priorities” panel. This was when new members heard from a bunch of lobbyists. Not every day do you get to hear from the president and vice president of The Duberstein Group. Lobbyists for CVS Health and Oracle were also listed as panelists. Even speakers who weren’t listed in the itinerary as lobbyists, like ex-Rep. Joe Heck, were indeed lobbyists, as the Post notes. (Incoming members were offered a separate binder with lengthier biographies.) All of these speakers have extensive experience on the Hill as either members or staffers, but in their current, more remunerative roles, they also have an interest in networking with incoming lawmakers.
While there were no labor leaders on any panels, there was a discussion on civility, moderated by David Gergen and featuring AEI President Arthur Brooks.
This year’s program isn’t all that different from that of years past. But the reaction from some new members indicates that this freshmen class, especially on its left flank, is something different altogether. And the criticism has registered with the program’s organizers.
“This is a university. Any good university reviews its curriculum, reviews its coursework, and thinks the ways we might want to go forward,” Mark Gearan, director of the Harvard Institute of Politics, was quoted in the Post as saying. Here’s that schedule: