5 tips for Congressional newbies
Long ago, I worked in Congress as a press aide and got a delightful taste of how things work on Capitol Hill.
Granted, it was back in olden times when Republicans and Democrats were permitted to be seen in public together, compromise on legislation, and get things done for the people who elected them. So maybe my experience is not so relevant anymore.
But since then my career also has involved thinking and writing about Congressional ethics. You’ll be pleased to know it hasn’t completely tortured my soul with existential ennui or even a modicum of despair, although I’m oddly smitten with The Smiths.
But no, dear cynics, “Congressional ethics” isn’t necessarily oxymoronic.
Congress takes ethics very seriously. Every Congressional candidate since the first race in 1788 ran on cleaning up Congress.
So I remain ever hopeful with each fresh crop of inspired and energetic Congresswomen and men who come to Washington to shake things up, get things done, and make Congress work for the people.
If you’re new to Congress, here are a few tips to help you get started:
1. The party’s over, welcome to reality.
“You campaign in poetry, you govern in prose,” Mario Cuomo famously said.
So if you whipped up your campaign rallies by quoting Rilke (“The only journey is the one within!” “All the soarings of my mind begin in my blood!”), now it’s time to drop the inspiring rhetoric and knuckle down to the hard tasks of writing and enacting legislation, beginning with H.R. 001, “A Bill To Give Big Campaign Donors Everything They Paid For.”
2. Kidding! You don’t have to write legislation.
Nor does your Millennial and Gen Z legislative staff, which is good because a typical Congressional bill is longer than 280 characters, uses words in the dictionary spelled correctly, and doesn’t rely at all on emojis or memes to get the points across.
So who’s going to write your bills? Don’t be silly: The lobbyists who funded your campaign would be more than thrilled to.
The lobbyists, many who are former Congressmen and staff, know way more about the tax breaks, regulatory rollbacks, special appropriations and how to get things done on Capitol Hill than you do.
Like dealing with condescending IT nerds who are setting up your office computers, step aside and let the experts work their magic.
3. Learn how Congress works.
Think Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m Just a Bill” cartoon about how laws are made is still a pretty good basic training webinar? Join the crowd — most Americans have no idea how our democracy works. You’ve seen the polls:
— 37 percent of Americans could not name a single right protected by the First Amendment.
— 33 percent could not name a single branch of government, and only 26 percent could name all three branches.
— 34 percent believe President Trump is the Sun King with complete, God-granted regal and legal authority over all branches of government, the earth, the moon and the stars. Trump’s also the rule of law because he says so.
Not true, but a warning about “I’m Just a Bill”: It’s less reliable for understanding democracy than the quick-start instructions for your new office computers.
The cartoon came out in 1975 when Congress pretty much worked as it should. Parts are outdated, like when Bill says “a Congressman sat down and wrote me.” Other parts are truer than ever, like referring to a bill as “that sad little scrap of paper.”
Sad indeed: Even under complete GOP control, and even under a GOP president, the 2017–18 Congress passed the fewest bills in three decades, making it the least productive session since Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” topped the Billboard charts.
Most of the legislation Congress did pass reversed the legislation Congress passed before. The technical term is “negative progress”.
Congress doesn’t even do Job One anymore — passing a federal budget — without routine cliffhangers and threats to shut down government.
But don’t voters punish Congress for doing nothing, you ask? ROTHFL! (Rolling on the House floor laughing).
In spite of this election’s historic voter turnout and Blue Wave turnover of the House to Democrats, 93 percent of Congress was reelected, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That’s on par with the last three elections when Congress was reelected by 90, 95 and 97 percent.
I understand, Congressional Newbie, that you’re full of vim, vigor and excitement from the election and the chance to lead the nation. You’re anxious to hit the ground running, albeit with sleepless nights and Xanax refills realizing you need to keep your campaign promises against all odds of historic precedent.
Bless your heart, as they say in the South to the intellectually different, aka, “the liberals.” Let hope triumph over experience.
4. Relax and enjoy.
Don’t worry, be happy. Put up your feet, get booked on Fox, CNN and MSNBC to parrot party talking points, pound the lectern before an empty House chamber because your lobbyist campaign contributors are listening, and participate in meaningless show trials, aka committee hearings. Above all, try to have a good time.
You’re in Congress now! You’re equal to the legendary Congressmen for whom the monumental House office buildings on Capitol Hill are named — Sam Rayburn, Nicholas Longworth, and Joseph Cannon, considered the most dominant Speaker of the House ever and who signed the 16th Amendment to the Constitution establishing Congress’s right to impose a federal income tax on the middle class to give the rich a tax break.
Cannon’s next greatest distinction was being featured on the cover of the first issue of Time magazine in 1923. Lesson here: It’s important to spend a great deal of time sucking up to the media, mainstream or alt-right conspiracy fake, depending on your constituency or sense of shame.
5. Kidding again — the people demand real action.
From deep polling, scientific sampling, analysis of cross-tabs, focus groups, data wrangling, artificial intelligence, machine learning and not being completely clueless, it’s clear America has a simple list of what it wants Congress to do. Such as fix the healthcare system to cover preexisting conditions on a middle-class income, repair and rebuild the crumbling infrastructure, and do something — anything for chrissake! — about the near weekly mass gun murders.
On the gun issue, voters just defeated more than two dozen NRA-bought Congressmen and elected even more dozens of gun-control advocates. The NRA just killed free staff coffee at HQ because it’s having a budget crisis. So maybe now’s a good time to save kids and families from being slaughtered in their schools and churches with a military-grade assault weapon.
That is, if you, Congressional Class of ’19, can take time out from your busy schedule raising big money from lobbyists to run for reelection. After all, it’s only two years away.
Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer