Members of the U.S. House of Representatives as well as the chamber’s groupies love telling anyone who’ll listen how it is the "people’s house," a sometimes raucous and befuddling chamber of 435 members whose backgrounds and ideologies are a cross-section of the entire nation.
This year especially, the preferred message is that your representative is probably like you -- hard working, honest, genuine, young and old, educated and not. He or she, the thinking goes, has come to Washington on a noble journey, the furthest thing from the most hated label of all - career politician.
Republican Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon seemed to suggest all of that and more when he made this point while delivering the Republican weekly radio response on Nov. 13: "The incoming Republican freshman class – well, it’s no ordinary group: nearly half of its roughly 80 members have never served in elective office before."
This theme has even more power this year in the wake of the Tea Party movement’s success and its assertion that Washington is the problem; that it’s populated by free-spending, self-serving career politicians. And as Congress gets ready for serious work it’s the fuel for Republican energy in the House.
So let’s take a look at the numbers to see if the impression Walden paints holds up.
When the House convened Jan. 5, 85 newly elected Republicans were sworn into office. (The total is different from Walden’s because some races were undecided when he spoke. Back then, not all Republicans had been declared winners. Also, Republicans claim 87 new members were sworn in. But two arrived at the tail-end of the previous Congress)
Of the 85, 32 Republican freshmen never held a publicly elected office before, according to the National Republican Campaign Committee, which helps elect Republicans to the House. (Not every one of those 32, however, is a complete novice. At least three worked previously as congressional aides or at the White House, one is on the Republican National Committee’s executive committee and at least two raced unsuccessfully for other public offices in the past.)
In real terms, that means 38 percent of the newest Republicans in the House never held elective office before. If you base the calculation on information known at the time Walden spoke, it’s still about 36 percent. Either way it’s a bit of a reach from "nearly a half,’’ as Walden suggests. By comparison, only one of the nine Democrats newly elected to the House could claim to be a political neophyte.
Walden’s staff says he used two sources for his claim. A column in the website PoliticsDaily that flatly said - without offering any support or attribution - that 35 new Republicans came from non-political backgrounds. The second source was the National Republican Congressional Committee, which according to Walden’s office, said 32 had never held elective office before.
The final number is 32.
Does this really matter? Not really. As they say for the stock market, past performance doesn’t predict future actions. The same is true in Congress, where members often find themselves taking positions and votes that they did not envision while running for office.
And that does nothing to diminish the truly diverse background of the incoming class of the 112th Congress. The new Republicans include Tim Griffin of Arkansas, a former assistant U.S. attorney; Robert Dold of Illinois owns a pest control business, was a White House aide and once managed an Internet data storage concern.
There are farmers and surgeons and airline pilots. There is Michael Grimm of New York, who owns a health food store and was an FBI agent and Jon Runyan who, before arriving in Washington, was an All-Pro offensive tackle in the NFL. There’s alsoJames Lankford of Oklahoma, who worked as a religious youth camp director before winning election to the House.
All of this is interesting and supports Walden’s claim that the new GOP class in the House brings considerable non-political experience. But the gap between 38 percent and Walden’s suggestion of "nearly half" is simply too wide. For this reason, we rate his claim Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.