Opinion

Advice to Tuesday’s Winners: Your Aides Aren’t Decoration

Capitol Hill is full of people who will puff up your ego to serve their own self-interest

Pretty soon a horde of new lawmakers will descend on Capitol Hill. Here’s hoping that they’ll treat their staffers as more than a cheering section, Lawrence writes. Above, football fans cheer as they watch a game in September. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — Scores of new representatives and senators will soon be assuming their positions on Capitol Hill following what many predict will be a “wave election.”

Having spent 38 years as a House staffer (the last eight as chief of staff to Speaker Nancy Pelosi), and as the author of a new book on the 1974 House reformers, I have some suggestions for these incoming, energetic, perhaps idealistic legislators to help them transition successfully to life in Washington and make them more effective public servants.

1. Assemble your staff carefully and manage them wisely.

Capitol Hill is full of people who will puff up your ego to serve their own self-interest. Always have someone on your staff who can tell you that you are wrong.

Use your staff to make you a better legislator. Let your staff ask a question at a meeting.  You pay them lots of money for their expertise and judgment, but too often, they stand silently like ornaments because members don’t want to appear to be dependent on staff.

Your people are your team, not just a cheering section to make you look good. And don’t fill your Washington office with campaign staff. Select some people who know issues and how the Hill functions. They will make life a lot easier for you.

2. Assume nothing!

Many embarrassing missteps occur because novices “assume” Congress works like things did back home. This isn’t the state legislature or city council. Capitol Hill is unique, for good and bad. Commit yourself to learning how it works: the procedures, the rules and the personalities.

3. Don’t confuse “advocacy” and “politics.”

Advocacy is telling people what you want; politics is getting other people to do what you want. These are completely different skills. The campaign is over. Your job in Congress is to get work done, not to bloviate. If that is your preferred style, trade in your voting card for a soapbox.

4. Don’t get discouraged.

Legislating is an ongoing process; you rarely win or lose entirely. Your opponents are waiting for you to give up. Our system wasn’t designed to be efficient. After a few months of the molasses-like pace of legislating, you might agree with George Galloway, who observed, “Congress is an oxcart in the age of the atom.” Keep in mind: Galloway said that in 1946.

5. Don’t think that just because you changed the world it is going to remain that way.

Don’t be so impressed with a victory that you neglect monitoring its implementation. Many statutes gather dust because disapproving bureaucrats simply ignore them. Also, keep in mind: there’s nothing wrong admitting a law needs improvements or updating once it encounters the real world outside Washington. That is where the terms “reauthorization” and “technical correction” come from.

6.  Be dissatisfied.

If you aren’t, get dissatisfied. If you can’t, get out of the business. Politics is about righting wrongs, not managing programs or balancing ledgers. There is always something to get angry about. And don’t complain about how hard the job is. No one wants to listen to some $174,000 a year officeholder complain about how hard he’s working.

7. Take your work seriously but not your own importance.

An experienced politician once said, “Anytime you think you’re really important, take a ride down the freeway about ten minutes and see who knows who you are.” If you work really hard and achieve some legislative victories, you might, might, make it to higher office. But you probably won’t, so enjoy what you are doing.

8. Become the “go to” expert.

Members seek out knowledgeable colleagues, so become one. Don’t try to master every issue or speak on every subject. As Speaker Sam Rayburn once said, “You ain’t learnin’ nothin’ when you’re talkin’.” And don’t make speeches to your colleagues. As Mo Udall observed about protracted meetings, “Everything has been said, but not everyone has said it.”

9. Get to know your colleagues.

Congress was more effective and enjoyable when members fraternized outside the legislative mosh pit. Go to the gym. Do some traveling with colleagues (stopping at a military base or hospital, and getting a briefing from the embassy). Telling constituents about your new buddy from the other party helps to dispel suspicions you’re becoming one of those partisan hacks everyone hates.

10. Don’t live in fear of defeat.

Pay attention to your constituents’ needs and opinions, but don’t “twist yourself into a pretzel with those kinds of political calculations,” as one member once advised. You rarely regret casting a vote of conscience, but a vote against your own best judgment can haunt you for a career.

Lastly, incoming members often ask what to read to make them better legislators. If you need advice on procedure, ask the parliamentarian, and if you are interested in earlier congressional reform, pick up my book. But read Barbara Tuchman’s “The March of Folly,” a classic account of how well-intentioned leaders ignore evidence even when they knew doing so would yield catastrophic results.

John Lawrence, a visiting professor at the University of California’s D.C. campus, is the author of “The Class of ’74: Congress After Watergate” and the “Roots of Partisanship.” Parts of this op-ed previously appeared on his blog, DOMEocracy. 

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