Keys to the Capitol

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By Toby Moffett
Monday, January 15, 2007

Here are some tips from an old(er) Democrat to the new House Democrats. These were probably not conveyed at freshmen orientation.

1. Don't be a slave to going home. Sure you have to be home a lot. But much of your success will depend on how you do - you and your constituents and the country need you to be rested, well-informed and happy with your job. So stay in D.C. for a weekend here and there. Have dinner with some colleagues or with people who want nothing from you.

2. Make friends. Visit your colleagues. It's almost unheard of for members to go to other members' offices.

And make some unlikely friends. Go to the House gym, where you can't tell who belongs to which party. Go to the weekly prayer breakfast where you can tell your life story - briefly - and hear about others.

3. Cross the aisle. As you now know, there are no assigned seats in the House, just that aisle dividing the parties. There's no rule against crossing it.

4. Befriend some lobbyists, from both nonprofit and for-profit worlds. Sometimes they can play an indispensable role in helping you understand issues. Remember, they can't pay for your dinner, but there's no rule against your paying for them.

5. Make foreign trips (always at taxpayers' expense). Make sure people know in advance that you're going and why you're going. Start with Darfur or Gaza or Kabul. Watch the polar ice cap melt. Go home and talk about what you've learned. Let your next opponent dare to call these junkets.

6. Resist demagoguery. Start by not apologizing for what you're paid. You're moving billions of dollars around and making policies that affect the world. Those constituents who hate Congress won't be impressed no matter what you do. You're not going to win every vote, so don't even try. Don't pick on Cuba, Morales or Chávez. It's so easy and politically pain-free, and it gets our country nowhere.

7. Term-limit yourself. But don't tell anyone. You may have noticed that a lot of members, as they say, "stay too long at the fair." Resolve that you're going to do something else in life before it's too late. If others don't know you're leaving, you won't become a "lame duck" and lose effectiveness. But your knowing will be liberating.

8. Support a ban on fundraising while the House is in session. Under the Republican majority, this wouldn't have mattered much because they were rarely here. But Nancy Pelosi is going to work you to the bone, Monday through Friday, so this would be real reform.

9. Live near the Capitol. If you don't, you'll be a prisoner in your office (or the gym) when the House is in session late on some bill you know little about and have nothing to do with.

10. Look up at that dome often. Especially on nights when you're headed to or from a vote. If you reach a point where it doesn't give you goosebumps, draft your resignation letter the next day.

The writer, a former representative from Connecticut, heads the international practice at the Livingston Group, a lobbying and consulting firm.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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