Ten Rules for Success on Capitol Hill

by John Lawrence

Every two years, the voters of the United States send 535 men and women to Washington, D.C. to serve as their representatives in Congress (with 5 more elected to the House as non-voting delegates and one Resident Commissioner).

As our civics teachers used to say, “Anyone can be elected to Congress,” and we prove that truism biennially. In the ranks of the Peoples’ House have served the predictable lawyers, farmers, educators, former congressional staff, doctors and state and local officials, but also professional athletes, actors, house painters, hairdressers, journalists, singers, pizza shop owners and a professional Santa Claus.

All arrive with varied experiences, opinions and aspirations. Few arrive with a pragmatic understanding of how Congress works or how to be an effective Member of the House or Senate.

That is where this guide hopefully comes in. These ten rules summarize decades of observations, experiences and lessons that can help Members and staff adjust to a role in which they will be judged immediately, mercilessly and ceaselessly by their constituents, the press, and their competitive colleagues.

  1. Assume nothing.   More screw-ups occur because someone “assumed” things would work in Congress like they do back home in Kansas City or Sheboygan than because of malevolence.  Capitol Hill is unique, for good and bad.  The sooner you figure out how to be effective, the more satisfying your career will be.
  2. Learn the difference between “advocacy” and “politics.” Advocacy is telling people what you want; politics is getting other people to agree with what you want. These are completely different skills. Your job in Congress is to get work done, not simply advocate idealistic viewpoints to satisfy the base that contributes to your campaigns and writes letters to the editor saying how great you are. If that is your preferred style, trade in your voting card for a soapbox. Notwithstanding the popular image of the bloviating congressional motor mouth, nobody likes a windbag.  To accomplish something and get ahead, be a workhorse, not a show horse.
  3. Don’t get discouraged.  Legislating is an organic, ongoing, mutating exercise; you rarely win or lose entirely, and you hopefully live to fight anther day. You aren’t running to complete a race. You are part of a relay and you will hand off the baton to someone new who needs to keep up the pace as well.  Your opponents are waiting for you to give up after a setback. Keep in mind the system was designed to be slow, deliberative and to protect the minority. After a few months of the molasses-like pace of legislating, you might agree with historian George B. Galloway who observed, “Congress is an oxcart in the age of the atom.” Keep in mind: Galloway said that in 1946.
  4. Don’t think that just because you changed the world it is going to remain that way.  Laws and policies need oversight, tweaking and periodic reconsideration. Don’t get so committed to the perfection of your idea that you lose the ability to see its flaws. And don’t get so caught up in the sense of victory after a win that you forget that the detailed work is writing regulations and enforcing that law you just passed. Many well-intentioned and well-written statutes gather dust waiting to be implemented by bureaucrats who disagree with its intent. Also, keep in mind: there’s nothing wrong with a law needing modifications or updates. That is a part of the process and helps explain where the terms “reauthorization” and “technical correction” come from.
  5. 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 numbers. There is always something wrong to get angry about. If you can’t think of something, think harder. And don’t complain about how hard the job is. No one wants to listen to some disenchanted officeholder complain about how difficult it is to be a congressman or senator, or how screwed up Washington is.  Your job is to fix it, or at least take a stab at it. However frustrating or maddening a day you had, it is probably nothing compared to the lousy day lots of your constituents endured at their job, so don’t expect sympathy. You probably have the best job you will ever have.
  6. Take your work seriously but not your own importance.  As they say, “The graveyard is full of indispensable men.”  95% of people serving in the House will never be known by a significant number of people outside their own districts, and only briefly by their own constituents.  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 difficult legislative victories, you might, might, make it to the Senate, or higher. But you probably won’t, so enjoy what you are doing and be good at it.
  7. Become the “go to” person on some issue. Members seek out other Members who know what they are talking about. Master a couple of issues; pass an amendment or introduce a bill to demonstrate your effectiveness. Don’t try to be an expert or have something to say on every subject. Nothing is worse than a politician making speeches to other politicians, especially if the speaker is (a) trying to show how much he or she knows about a topic, (b) is delaying the adjournment of a meeting that has already gone on too long, or (c) has already spoken and it doubtless repeating the earlier speech. As Speaker Sam Rayburn once said, “You ain’t learnin’ nothing when you’re talkin’.”
  8. Let your staff ask a question or make an observation at a meeting.  You pay them lots of money for their opinions and expertise, and then they sit or stand around silently at meetings like ornaments because Members don’t want to appear to be dependent on staff. Think of your people as your team in pursuit of a common goal, not just a cheering section designed to make you look good. And by the way: don’t fill your Washington office with campaign staff. Being a Member is different than running to be a Member; you need to do both, and you need both kinds of staff.
  9. Get to know your colleagues.   What makes the place really function efficiently, when it does, is that Members know each other and can interact and make some old-fashioned horse trades. Spending time together outside the legislative mosh pit is time well invested. You will learn more, expand your vision, get to know your colleagues, and become a better legislator.  Yes, constituents could get angry that you flew off to some far-flung destination on a CODEL, but they can always find an excuse to throw you out of office.  Throw in a stop or two at military bases or hospitals, and always get your official country team briefing so some smart aleck in the embassy doesn’t write a note to files that you blew off the diplomatic corps. Nothing impresses a cynical constituent more than your description of a good heart-to-heart with your buddy from the other party, which helps to dispel the notion that you might be becoming one of those pontificating partisan hacks everyone hates. And go meet the President at your first opportunity, no matter how briefly. As a successful politician once told me, “When you begin your sentence with, “Well, yesterday at the White House, the President told me…” people are going to listen to the rest of the sentence, even if they dislike the President. It shows you have access and got in the door, which is more than 99.9999% of the other people in Washington that day.
  10. Don’t live in fear of defeat. Of course, you need to pay attention to your district and to your constituents’ needs and opinions. Do everything you can to facilitate close communications, and hire a competent district staff that can be your eyes and ears when you are in Washington or elsewhere. But don’t agonize over every vote based on anticipated constituent reaction. As a member I know once advised a distraught colleague, “It simply isn’t worth it to calculate how each vote will sell or be attacked in the next election.   You can twist yourself into a pretzel with those kinds of political calculations.” I also knew a congressman who ran a state-of-the-art constituent operation who lost his re-election just because it was a bad year for incumbents; his recommendation to his colleagues: “If they want to get rid of you, it won’t matter what a good job you’ve done.”  By the time of your next campaign, you will definitely know enough to be able to explain your vote to any constituent. Sure, the other party may come after you with a fat bankroll and all guns blazing, but that can happen these days on almost any vote. Figure out what you really believe, develop your rationale for your constituents, and do what you think it right. If it is any consolation, I know many Members who lost their seats over a controversial vote but very, very few who regretted having voted as they believed was right. But a vote cast against your own best judgment and conscience can haunt you for a career.

Congratulations! And for the good of the country, I hope you have a very successful 114th Congress.