10 Rules for Success on Capitol Hill | Commentary
Here’s some nonpartisan advice for newly elected members of the House and Senate about how to be a successful legislator.
1. Assume nothing! Many missteps occur because novices “assume” Congress works like things do back home. It doesn’t. Capitol Hill is unique, for good and bad. Learn the rules.
2. Don’t confuse “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 to score 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 system wasn’t designed to be efficient. 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 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 obstruct them. Also, keep in mind: There’s nothing wrong admitting a law needs improvements or updating. 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 officeholder complain about what’s wrong with Washington.
6. Take your work seriously but not your own importance. As they say, “The graveyard is full of indispensable men.” An experienced politician once said, “Anytime you think you’re really important, take a ride down the freeway about 10 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.
7. Become the “go-to” expert. Members seek out knowledgeable colleagues, so be one. Don’t try to be an expert or insist on speaking on every subject. You colleagues do not want to listen to someone who is a) trying to flaunt expertise, b) delaying the adjournment of a meeting or c) repeating an earlier speech. As Speaker Sam Rayburn once said, “You ain’t learnin’ nothin’ when you’re talkin’.”
8. Let your staff participate. You pay them lots of money for their expertise, and then many stand around silently so members don’t appear staff dependent. Your people are teammates in pursuit of a common goal, not just your cheering section. And by the way: Don’t fill your Washington office with campaign staff.
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; get a country team briefing so there are no memos-to-file that you blew off the diplomatic corps. Recounting your heart-to-heart with your new buddy from the other party helps to dispel constituents’ suspicions you’re becoming one of those partisan hacks everyone hates. And go meet the president. As a successful politician once told me, “When you begin your sentence with, “Well, yesterday at the White House, the president told me . . . ” people listen, because you have demonstrated that you have access.
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.
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 ignore evidence even when they know doing so will yield catastrophic results. If you need advice on procedure, ask the parliamentarian, but heed Tuchman’s findings about the misuse of power.
John A. Lawrence, a visiting professor at the University of California D.C. campus, worked on Capitol Hill for 38 years, and spent eight years (from 2005 through 2013)as chief of staff to then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi.