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Do’s and Don’ts for New Members in the 113th Congress

For the past 35 years, the nonpartisan Congressional Management Foundation has provided a manual for new members to successfully navigate the halls of Congress and make smart decisions in setting up an office, hiring staff and figuring out what kind of member they want to be.

But in case you already have your dance card filled with meet-and-greets and staff interviews, CQ Roll Call has taken the liberty of highlighting some of the CMF’s Do’s and Don’ts so every member-elect can make the most of their term here — and possibly win themselves a second in the process.

Do: Set Priorities

The best advice, according to CMF President Brad Fitch, is to focus and set priorities. Fitch recommends that members-elect come up with three or four things that constituents should remember about them when they go to vote in their next election. This will help in picking committee assignments (a member-elect who wants to focus on agriculture subsidies can make a request to be on said committee) and hiring staff with the proper expertise and background.

“We say that if you don’t focus, you’ll become one of two types of members of Congress,” Fitch said. “If you’re in a safe district, you’ll be ineffective. For an unsafe district, you’ll be a former member of Congress.”

Do: Focus on Logistics

According to Fitch, the first 90 days are all about logistics, from picking your D.C. and district offices and staff to purchasing equipment. During orientation, members-elect are given a communication device — a BlackBerry and/or laptop — the price of which is deducted from the Members’ Representational Allowances. They must wait until Jan. 3 — the day they are sworn in — to receive their office keys, member pin and voting card. Members have little time to get acclimated before votes begin, committee hearings start and constituents call with casework requests.

Fitch cautions members-elect not to underestimate the scale of logistics required.

“Setting up a congressional office has all of the challenges of setting up a small business with all of the red tape of a bureaucracy,” Fitch said.

Don’t: Rely Solely on Campaign Staff

“The skills that make a good campaign staff aren’t necessarily always the skills that make a good congressional staff,” said Betsy Wright Hawkings, a former editor of the “Setting Course” guidebook. Hawkings served as chief of staff to outgoing Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Ill., and has signed on to be chief of staff to newly elected Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky.

During orientation, members-elect are encouraged to bring staff on board who are the best fit for the job. Those are not necessarily the same people who helped guide them to a win. Chris McCannell, director of government relations at APCO Worldwide and a former chief of staff to New York Democrats Joseph Crowley and Michael E. McMahon when both were freshmen, echoed this sentiment.

“There are folks who worked on the campaign and crossed the finish line that would make great Hill staffers. But for some, the structured environment of Capitol Hill doesn’t suit them.”

Members who rely too heavily on their campaign staffs can see considerable turnover in six to nine months and find themselves without successful mail or constituent casework systems.

Don’t: Say Yes to Everything

Members-elect are given little time to get an office up and running. Even after the frenetic pace of a campaign, moving to D.C. to set up shop is daunting, and members-elect may have a tendency to try to please everyone. Fitch stresses the importance of learning how to say “no” as one of the crucial skills necessary for success.

“Constituents expect them to be everything for everybody. Politicians, it is in their DNA to please everyone,” Fitch said. “They want to say ‘yes’ to everybody. The first thing they have to do is learn to say ‘no.’ They need to focus and build a brand for themselves.”

Do: Enjoy the Ride

At the end of the day, this is a spot in history, and members-elect are encouraged to keep in mind the honor that comes with serving as a member of Congress. “We tell them first that this is a great adventure and they should never lose sight of the fact that this is a pretty exciting time,” Fitch said.

Orientation is one of the first steps in what might be a long career — or a two-year stopover. And even after everything the House Administration Committee and the CMF bestows on members-elect and staff, the decision on how to run their office is ultimately up to them.

“There are about 435 different ways to do this job,” Hawkings said.

And it will be another two years before the members see the results of how well they’ve done.

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