Rules for Success on Capitol Hill

by John Lawrence

Today is the opening day of the 115th Congress, and dozens of new legislators will soon raise their hand to take the oath of office for the first time, along with their more seasoned colleagues. Here is an updated version of my “Rules for Success on Capitol Hill” for freshmen as they adjust to their new responsibilities, based on my own 38 years in senior positions in the House.

  1. Assume nothing!   Many embarrassing missteps occur when novices “assume” Congress works like things did back home in city hall, private business, or the state legislature. It doesn’t. Capitol Hill is unique, for good and bad, so learn how Congress operates: it is not likely to prove as malleable as you might expect.
  2. 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 simply to score rhetorical points with people who already support you. If that is your preferred style, trade in your voting card for a soapbox.
  3. Don’t get discouraged.  Legislating is an ongoing exercise; you rarely win or lose entirely. Your opponents are waiting for you to give up. Our political system wasn’t designed to be efficient, and that goes doubly so for the legislative branch. After a few months of the molasses-like pace of legislating, you might agree with historian George 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.   Don’t be so impressed with a victory that you neglect dogging 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 complex real world outside Washington. That is 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. And don’t complain about how hard the job is. No one wants to listen to some disenchanted, $174,000 a year officeholder complain about what’s wrong with being a Member of Congress.
  6. Take your work seriously but not your own importance.  As they say, “The graveyard is full of indispensable men.”   And women. 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 your name.” 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.
  7. 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’.” You colleagues do not want to listen to someone who is (a) trying to flaunt their expertise, (b) delaying the adjournment of a meeting, or (c) repeating the key points in a speech that has already been delivered y someone else. As Mo Udall exasperatingly once observed during an interminable meeting, “Everything has been said, but not everyone has said it.”
  8. Always have someone on your staff who can tell you that you are wrong. Capitol Hill is full of people who will puff up your ego to serve their own self-interest. Have someone close to you who can challenge one of your dumb ideas (and you will assuredly have a few) without fearing for his or her job. Assemble a skilled staff and use them wisely: 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 in pursuit of a common goal, not just a cheering section designed 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.
  9. Get to know your colleagues personally.   Congress worked a lot better when Members fraternized outside the legislative mosh pit.  Do some traveling with colleagues (making sure to schedule a stop at military bases or hospitals, and always get a country team briefing from the Embassy folks to prevent emails complaining that you blew off the diplomatic corps to do some site-seeing). Recounting your friendship with your new buddy from the other party helps to dispel constituents’ suspicions you’re rapidly becoming one of those partisan hacks everyone hates. And go meet the President (yes, even this President). As a successful politician once said, “When you begin your sentence with, “Well, yesterday at the White House, I told the President …” people listen, because you have demonstrated that you have access, which is more than 99.9% of the people with whom you are speaking.
  10. Don’t live in fear of defeat. Pay attention to your constituents’ needs and opinions, but don’t agonize over every vote. A member once advised a distraught colleague, “You can twist yourself into a pretzel with those kinds of political calculations.”  Few Members regret casting a vote of conscience, but a vote against your own best judgment can haunt you for a career.

Homework: Lastly, incoming Members often asked me to recommend some essential reading. I suggest Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly which recounts how well-intentioned leaders ignored evidence even when they knew doing so would yield catastrophic results. If you need advice on procedure, ask the Parliamentarian, but heed Tuchman’s findings about the misuse of power.