For most organizations, getting 26 members of Congress to show up at a soiree would be an impressive feat. But then, most organizations are not the Institute of Politics (IOP) at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. For the Kennedy School, a mere 26 is a significant disappointment.
For the rest of us, it may be a sign that the incoming Republicans swarming Capitol Hill aren't all that interested in becoming effective legislators.
Why? For that, you have to go back four decades. Since the early 1970s, the IOP has held a Congressional Issues Conference for newly-elected members of Congress. The soon-to-be congressmen spend three days attending policy seminars and workshops on the actual workings of Congress and the Capitol. Past attendees have included Al Gore ('76), Geraldine Ferraro ('78), Bill Richardson ('82), Dennis Hastert ('86), and Rahm Emanuel ('02).
The Kennedy School conference is among the most prestigious events for congressional freshmen, and in most years it has drawn more than half of the incoming freshman class. This year, with a massive 93 newcomers invited, barely a quarter made the trip to Cambridge for this week's gathering. More than five dozen declined the invitation.
One possible reason for the no-shows: Harvard's reputation among conservatives as a bastion of liberalism (or worse).
Although the program is strictly non-partisan — in fact, IOP partners with the Heritage Foundation, a well-known conservative think tank — only 16 of the 83 newly-elected Republicans are attending. That's a marked change from recent years, which have seen bipartisan participation. In fact, the top two Republicans in the House — John Boehner and Eric Cantor, the incoming Speaker and Majority Leader — both attended the conference when they were first elected.
This year's low turnout does, however, bring back memories of 1994 — another successful election year for the GOP, and the only time the conference has been cancelled. Partisan tensions that year led both parties to boycott, with Newt Gingrich making clear that he didn't want his impressionable acolytes risking a brainwashing on the Harvard campus.
There's no word of similar warnings this year, but it's evident that most of the new conservatives — especially from deep-red parts of the country — are steering clear. Of the 19 new Republicans from the Deep South stretch of Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas, just one, Rob Woodall, is making the trek to Cambridge.
Plenty of the IOP's Republican guests are very much raw newcomers — not just to Washington, but to public office. Two are surgeons. Another is a talk-show host. The attendees also include the owners of a pest-control business, a construction company, a car dealership, and an auction house.
They have a lot to learn. But at least, unlike many of their peers, they aren't afraid to come to Harvard to learn it.