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Timeless Management Advice for Congress | Commentary

For 30 years, the Congressional Management Foundation has published a handbook on how to run a congressional office. “Setting Course: A Congressional Management Guide” was first published in 1984, and provided advice to the 99th Congress on everything from budgeting, to staffing the office, to buying computers. The guidance is not the same as the formal instructions provided by the committees and institutional offices which assist in the management of Congress. Instead, “Setting Course” addresses the mechanics of being a member of Congress or senior staffer and leader of what amounts to a small business.

As the CMF prepared this year’s 30th anniversary edition, we thought it might be interesting (and a little fun) to re-read the first edition from 1984 with eyes toward what has stayed the same and what changed. While certain superficial items pop out to a reader (chiefs of staff were “administrative assistants” and staff assistants were “office secretaries”), it’s remarkable how little has changed during these three decades. This is not a critique that Congress has not improved its operations and use of technology — there is no doubt it has. Rather, it speaks to something inherent in human relations and effective management: leadership and communications lessons are timeless and are the fundamental building blocks to any successful professional endeavor.

In re-reading the CMF’s congressional management advice from 30 years ago, one does notice changes in two areas: technology and ethics. The 1984 edition advised that “automating your scheduling system  . . .  permits you to whip out your 3-by-5 index cards, printed by computer, each day, to figure out which meeting you’re in and where you’re supposed to go next.” And, “DO anticipate and take steps to address the emotional concerns which often arise among staff when automation is introduced. ‘Terminal-phobia’ and fear of replacement by machines are common concerns which should be confronted as you prepare your office for computerization.”

With respect to ethics, re-reading older editions of “Setting Course” makes clear the unofficial benefits to congressional staff are long gone.

“Trips to Washington are appreciated ‘perks’ for the district staff in many cases. And every office has its ‘freebies’ — the Kennedy Center tickets, the Redskins tickets, etc.” Yes, Virginia, there was a Santa Claus for staffers in the 1980s — “Mr. Lobbyist.” Nowadays, those freebies also come with a federal indictment for violating ethics laws.

But gratifyingly, the key advice from three decades ago still works today. “DON’T hire the whole campaign staff and transport them to Washington. Their skills are not necessarily transferable to the Hill offices and this usually results in massive turnover after the first 90 days.”

The CMF learned of one member in the class of 2012 who broke this rule. He won’t be coming back for the 114th Congress.

We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at this comment from the 1984 edition: “[House] personal office resources are finite — a maximum of 18 full-time and four part-time staff.” Despite significant population growth in congressional districts and increased demands on offices, staff sizes have remained stagnant and budgets have been cut in recent years.

And this pearl of wisdom from a freshman member of the 99th Congress still applies: “When I first came here, Carroll Campbell (R-S.C.) told me, ‘The first thing you’ve got to learn is that you’re not nearly as bad as the newspapers report, and not near as good as your staff might say, to your face, at least.’”

Also, the tendency of members to overload their staff was as ubiquitous 30 years ago as it is today. “Congressional staffers often complain about the member who returns from the gym where he has picked up on an idea from another member,” says the 1984 text. “He grabs the first aide he sees and says, ‘Hey you! Let’s do such and such,’ regardless of that staffer’s functions or the office’s priorities.” The more things change …

But the most evergreen advice from the 1984 edition of “Setting Course” was this: “As we interviewed members and staff, the most effective and clear-headed individuals were those who had a firm grasp on the notion that no member or office can do everything.”

Bradford Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, and a former congressional staffer.

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