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What every freshman lawmaker needs to know

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By Harold Ford Jr.
Friday, December 31, 2010; 12:00 AM

Even before the 112th Congress officially convenes, its newly elected members have had an impact - and have seen, perhaps more than any previous Congress, how a seminal election can quickly achieve results.

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Republicans are understandably proud of their victories in November. Democrats took it on the chin - but have to be pleased with achieving a tax cut for every American working family, allowing all Americans to serve their country honestly and openly, ratifying a new-arms reduction treaty and paying for the health care of Sept. 11 emergency workers.

The past few weeks have proved that government can work. The beneficiaries of government working are the American people. The responsibility now rests with first-term members to take the ideas, energy and passion from their districts and get results in Washington.

They must not treat these early political victories as a mandate for partisan positioning but, rather, use this momentum for creating jobs, getting our economy on track and reducing the nation's long-term debt.

Here are five tips that will help you do right by your district, your family and our country:

  • First, real leaders aren't afraid to compromise. In fact, our best leaders understand that the nation's success is built on getting the best deal possible for the people they represent. You will be pressured by your party leadership to vote the party line at times. Sometimes on procedural votes that's fine - but not all the time. When there's a chance to vote for responsible entitlement reform, to restructure our tax code, to reduce the nation's dependence on foreign energy or to make America a more perfect union, don't allow party orthodoxy or leaders' expectations to stop you from doing what's in the best interests of your constituents and the country.
  • Second, travel. Avoid the warm-climate junkets in winter, yet don't be dissuaded from taking trips to learn about the world and America's very important place in it. The world grows more interdependent every year. Political leaders need to understand better the growth in Brazil, China, Germany, India, Israel, Mexico, Singapore, South Africa and Vietnam, and how that growth is changing and challenging the U.S. role in the international community. My travels to Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and Jordan after the Sept. 11 attacks enlightened me exponentially more than Hill briefings and cable-TV chatter could.
  • Third, become an expert. If you campaigned on health care, learn the issue. If you campaigned on eliminating the debt, learn the federal budget. If nuclear, immigration or education policies are your concerns, learn them really well. One of the most disappointing and unfortunate aspects of politics for most Americans is the proliferation of sound bites on the challenges facing our country. Don't just listen to and read proponents of your opinion. Take the time to read, listen and learn the opposing positions. It will sharpen your thinking - and may even change your mind on some things.
  • Fourth, don't take politics personally. Some of you are first-time elected officials. You're on a national stage now, and slights at the federal level are magnified. Your colleagues represent people who love America, who serve America and who have started businesses, employ others and pay taxes to fund our nation. You may disagree with your colleagues, and they with you, but don't fall into the trap of hating lawmakers or the other party because of a single speech or vote. Engage your colleagues, socialize with them and learn from them. The country wins when that happens.
  • Fifth, enjoy yourself. Amid the pressure to shape policies and laws, it can be easy to forget that you have been given one of the greatest responsibilities any American could have.

We are counting on you.

The writer, author of "More Davids Than Goliaths," was a Democratic representative from Tennessee from 1997 to 2006.


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