By Elizabeth Bewley
For Rep. Stephen Fincher, the high point of his first year in Congress occurred when he was sworn into office on his first day with his wife and three children at his side -- an experience he called "so cool."
But that sentiment didn't last long. The next day, Fincher remembers watching from the House floor as Republicans and Democrats bickered over which portions of the Constitution should be read aloud to kick off the legislative session.
"I said, "This is not going to be a fun year,' " Fincher, a Republican from Frog Jump, recalled during a recent interview at the Capitol Hill Club, an exclusive GOP hangout located steps from Fincher's Washington office.
Since then, Fincher and two other freshman lawmakers from Tennessee -- Republican Reps. Diane Black of Gallatin and Scott DesJarlais of Jasper -- have had to face the realities of serving in a deeply divided Congress plagued by partisan battles and legislative logjams.
It's been frustrating and full of unpleasant surprises, the three lawmakers said in recent interviews. Hopes of quick, sweeping change -- repealing President Barack Obama's 2010 health-care reform law and solving the country's debt crisis, for example -- have given way to a resigned acceptance of more incremental adjustments. But the lawmakers say they've had their successes, too, carving out areas of expertise and helping sway the larger debate.
Of the first-term lawmakers from Tennessee, Black has enjoyed the highest profile. The only Tennessee freshman with political experience, she sits on the influential Budget and Ways and Means committees and speaks regularly at GOP news conferences. Just two months after taking office, she was chosen to take a turn giving the weekly Republican radio and Internet address, during which she slammed "out-of-control" spending by the White House.
In an interview in her Capitol Hill office, Black said Republican freshmen may not have accomplished all their goals, but they have served as "speed bumps in the road" preventing Democrats from enacting more programs.
Black, a former nurse and state senator, has pushed changes in health-care spending and reforms to the federal budget process -- issues that might cause some eyes to glaze over.
But she grew animated as she discussed her proudest moment since taking office: the October passage of her bill to fix a $13 billion loophole in health-care reform, which would have allowed some middle-class people to receive Medicaid, government-sponsored health insurance intended for the poor and disabled. Black said she was the first freshman lawmaker of either party to have a bill signed into law.
The text of the law hangs in a frame above her desk in Washington -- directly across from the copy of the 955-page health-care reform law sitting atop a cabinet, a constant reminder of what Black is working against.
"I am a real policy wonk," she said. "I came here because that's what I love."
DesJarlais and Fincher don't profess that love for policy -- both came from the private sector -- but they say they have tried to carve out policy niches: health care for DesJarlais, a physician and member of the House GOP Doctors Caucus, and easing burdens on small businesses for Fincher, who said running a farm has helped him understand the issues he deals with on the House Financial Services Committee.
The lawmakers also faced some major hurdles during their first year: understanding the procedural ins and outs of Congress, working hundreds of miles from their families, and navigating the partisan divide. And Fincher became the subject of a Federal Election Commission investigation after he misreported the source of a loan he made to his campaign.
Black, Fincher and DesJarlais lamented the partisanship that has led to legislative gridlock and record-low congressional approval ratings, while blasting the Democratic-led Senate for not taking action on more House bills.
"Not being in the political arena before this year I guess I was a little shocked at how much (political posturing) goes on," DesJarlais said. "It seems almost everything that occurs has some sort of political motive."
Yet according to most vote studies, Tennessee's freshmen are among the most partisan members of Congress. They voted with Republicans on almost every vote during their first year, although DesJarlais bucked Republican leadership on a few major issues, including voting against the deal to raise the debt ceiling last summer. Black and Fincher tied for the rank of most conservative House member in a National Journal analysis of congressional votes last week.
Their records are largely indistinguishable from the 84 other Republicans swept into office in 2010 on a wave of tea-party-fueled anger, political experts say. And some say the group as a whole hasn't lived up to its promises to shake up Washington.
The freshman class has succeeded in bringing its chief issue -- debt reduction -- to the forefront, MTSU political professor Steven Livingston said, "but if you ask did they succeed in carrying out their agenda, you'd say they didn't accomplish what they might have wanted."
That's a perception that could hurt some first-term lawmakers in November's elections, although experts say it's unlikely to harm Tennessee freshmen because their districts are solidly Republican.
Political experts also say the tactic of running as Washington outsiders will become more difficult the longer freshmen are in office. With no major challengers lined up so far, Black, DesJarlais and Fincher look likely to stick around for at least another term. The fourth Tennessee freshman, Chuck Fleischmann of Ooltewah, faces a primary challenge.
Already they seem comfortable here. Black's office is adorned with family photos and keepsakes, including miniature clay figurines of Black, her husband, and their three children and six grandchildren. The display was made by Black's sister and features the congresswoman in a fashionable blazer.
And Fincher, a gospel singer, plays guitar in a band with other House members, including several Republicans and Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota. At the Capitol Hill Club, Republican colleagues interrupted Fincher from his Diet Coke to slap him on the back and tease him about being interviewed. He teased right back.
But with just one year under their belts, the freshmen insist they have not become part of the Washington establishment.
"I've got the farm at home, so I can go back," Fincher said. "And I will go back. This is not a career for me."