Five Tips for New Members of Congress

Five Tips for New Members of Congress
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Five Tips for New Members of Congress
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
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You’ve had a tough start — you were sworn into office and the government shut down for a record 35 days. The State of the Union address was cancelled, then delivered, yet the prognosis might be that divided government is dysfunctional government. Is another government shutdown looming or will the president declare a “national emergency”?

Most importantly, your constituents sent you to Washington to change the culture of dysfunction and toxic partisanship, and you’ll have to work especially hard to get results given the challenging political environment. As a former member of Congress myself, here are some recommendations:

--Stand up for your ideals. You ran on the idea of reforming government, cleaning up corruption, and restoring faith in the Founders’ dream of representative democracy, and you won. Still, numerous freshmen were quick to create their very own leadership PACs, a longtime Washington swamp creature. These PACs are not subject to the same restrictions on personal spending as individual campaign committees, leading to many examples of misuse. One way to avoid being sucked into that infested swamp is to help change this system by urging the Federal Election Commission to close loopholes in its regulation of leadership PACs.

--Fight for your issue priorities at home and in D.C. The battle for “the wall” has defined the only policy priority coming from Washington. Still, many of your peers from both parties ran in 2018 on issues that directly impact Americans’ lives and wallets: infrastructure improvement, addressing the nation’s opioid addiction, decreasing health care costs, or dealing with the budget deficit. The American people are as disgusted with Washington’s seeming incapability to get anything accomplished as they are with its perceived corruption. Freshmen members should work across the aisle to bring new ideas and policy to the floor for votes — and soon!

--Focus on committee assignments and substantive work. You recently received your new committee responsibilities, with some freshmen even getting subcommittee chairs, and others deeply disappointed with second or third choices. Regardless, this is your single biggest opportunity to build expertise, knowledge, relationships, and networks for future relevance and success. Initiating meetings with potential mentors, requesting in-depth briefings with policy experts, and even suggesting topics for hearings are all within your purview. Sen. Harry Truman dedicated his time to his committee, building expertise on military procurement issues that eventually led to his selection as vice president.

--Look for bipartisan areas for cooperation:  HR1, a sweeping series of democracy reforms launched by Democrats, will make its way through the complex committee process and to the House floor sometime this month. This legislation contains numerous proposals with bipartisan support that could help drain the swamp, address special interest dominance, and provide more transparency regarding the dark money flooding our elections. Members would be wise to identify these and other bipartisan areas for common ground to improve accountability, raise standards of ethics, and prevent corruption in politics. One thing we do know: The lobbyists and moneyed interests on K Street are already secretly meeting and planning to attack this bill so they can preserve the status quo of dirty money, billionaire dominance, and political inequality.

--Remember “location, location, location.” They say that when buying a home, it’s all about your location — safe neighborhoods, proximity to good schools, and future property values. Similarly, the best area to smartly place political capital is in your home district. Superb constituent services, an investment in resources and personnel, and a talented “district director” will pay dividends.

Americans talk about Congress with terms like “turmoil,” “disarray,” “screwed up,” and far more unprintable things you’ve heard back home. You have the opportunity to be part of the solution — or part of the problem. Execute on the change you pledged to your voters in 2018. They expect it and are impatient for results.

Tim Roemer is a former member of Congress from Indiana (1990-2003), former U.S. Senate staff member (1985-1988), and former U.S. Ambassador to India.

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