How do newly-elected politicians get their bearings?

When a politician (in the US, for me) assumes an office for the first time-- whether it be a more executive position or a more parliamentary one-- how do they figure the whole thing out? I’d imagine it’s an overwhelming amount of new information and processes to absorb. Are candidates just expected to know as much as possible about the day-to-day workings of the office before they assume it? Is their some kind of training or manual? Say Politician X runs for Senate, and she’s very knowledgeable about the issues but has no idea how being a Senator actually works. She’s elected. Is it just a baptism by fire?

Two educated guesses

  • If a candidate was nominated by a political party, probably they have some experience in the ‘grass roots’ political system, and the party will help to educate them in what they need to know to hold their office successfully.

  • In some positions there will be civil service appointees who worked closely with the last officeholder and will be able to help them… of course, if a new candidate is from a different political party than the incumbent was, he or she might not trust what such ‘friends’ tell him or her.

I don’t have a cite handy, but C-Span will show the newcomer information sessions for newly elected congresspeople every January. They get information on the basics of congress.

Officials of the various Parliaments here run orientation/training sessions for newly elected members. These new members presumably also get tips and pointers from more experienced party colleagues.

In NY, if you’re elected to a judgeship, you are required to take a training course before taking office.

Here in Missouri (and, I’ll bet, every other place) there’s an official way and an unofficial way.

The official way is for newly-elected officials to attend the newcomer orientation sessions at the state capitol, where they learn the nuts and bolts of where to park, how to file a bill, the various paperwork they’re responsible for, etc.

The unofficial way is to tap into the “institutional memory” of senior party officials, legislative staff (the “bureaucrats” who make sure things run) and, yes, the lobbyists. Good lobbyists (and by “good” I mean smart and professional) not only know more about how to draft a bill than most legislators, they also know all about who a legislator needs to know, which official has a pet project, and all the other inside information that makes the political process work.

When I was a budding young reporter, the most valuable bit of advice I got was “get to know the secretaries. They’re the ones who know what’s going on.” Thirty years later, when I started working for an organization that worked with state government, the advice was the same.

I would guess that most state legislatures have an orientation program similar to to the US Congress orientation program. I know PA does. But realistically, that only covers how to get your parking pass and where the hookers hang out on Friday nights.

Learning the workings is a different story. I once asked a veteran legislator why he never ran for Congress. He was popular and had pretty good fundraising. It could have been a pretty good move. He replied that it can take anywhere from 6-10 years to get up to speed on the process to the point where you can work the system and get real legislation passed (naming a post office doesn;t count). At his age, he simply wasn’t willing to go start over and be a backbencher for a few years until he got up to speed.

You know, a real good view of how a freshman congressman gets his bearings, is in the otherwise crappy Eddie Murphy, The Distinguished Gentleman.

Campaign contributions from Timken?


As noted, there are actual classes and orientation seminars set up in the U.S. Congress for incoming freshmen and I suspect that most states have similar programs. In addition, (again, as noted) a lot of congresscritters (though not all) spent time in the trenches of their state capitols where they got a feel for protocol and procedure.

And this is the best argument against term limits, by the time a new legislator is just becoming effective, they are prevented from running again.

If they had term limits for lobbyists, that might be a good idea.