Keep your word, build relationships in both parties, and find meaningful issues to work on. That was the advice from current and former congressional and White House staffers to 23 newly elected members of Congress during a four-day conference at the John F. Kennedy School of Government last week.
The conference, the 16th biennial Program for Newly Elected Members of Congress, ran from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2. It was hosted by the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics (IOP).
IOP Director Phil Sharp, who served as a congressman from Indiana for 20 years, said he could have used the wisdom passed along during the program when he was a freshman in 1975. Sharp said among the most important bits of advice was to find a particular issue to specialize in. Sharp said he eventually learned that, focusing on energy policy, but said it took him some time.
Sharp said he thought there were several highlights of the four days, including speeches by Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers, who served as treasury secretary under Bill Clinton, and by Roger Porter, IBM Professor of Business and Government, who served in senior economic policy positions in several administrations. Current members of Congress also spoke, as did several members of the Harvard faculty, including Kennedy School Dean David Ellwood.
The conference touched both on issues-related material and on practical advice in how to survive in Washington, D.C. Among the issues discussed were the U.S. budget, international economics, the use of U.S. power around the world, nuclear terrorism, worldwide population trends, and global warming.
Sharp said one of the more difficult transitions for new members is the shift in focus from local politics, which many of the new members have been involved in, to national and worldwide issues.
The conference was opened to the media on its last day, during a session on White House/congressional relations. Several White House and congressional staffers offered advice to the incoming members of Congress on how to make the transition to Washington, D.C.
Several speakers said the new members have a chance to make a first impression over the next six months, stressing the importance of personal integrity, particularly in keeping their word on how they’re going to vote. They also said it’s important to be open with people, including party leadership, even if you’re voting against them on a particular issue.
“You have only two things as a member, your word and your vote, and you have to use both of them judiciously,” said Lorraine Miller, director of intergovernmental relations for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. “This is about building relationships. … Those relationships and how you build them will affect how you’re viewed.”
Porter echoed that, saying, “There is nothing more valuable in Washington than the reputation that you keep your word. I’d be careful giving it, but relentless in keeping it once given.”
Other advice included not speaking on every issue and not making frivolous demands for items to be included in legislation, panelists said. Instead, they said, pick an issue of personal interest or of importance to constituents and become an expert on that.
Above all, they said, remember that working in Congress is about building, maintaining, and using relationships. The more working relationships one has in both parties and in the White House, the better the chance for success.
Porter also counseled to be wary of what he called “the thick of thin things,” or the crush of items needing immediate attention but that aren’t important. He counseled the new members to take time out each day to think, and to share those ideas with colleagues. Those conversations, he said, will not only build relationships, but may also prove useful in identifying allies or new thrusts for legislation.
And, though Washington is an undeniably partisan town, Porter quoted Ronald Reagan in explaining that it is up to each of us to decide how we treat each other.
“We don’t get to choose how others treat us, but we always get to choose how we treat others,” Porter said. “You may be coming into a partisan environment, but that doesn’t mean you have to be partisan.”