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Former Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) once said, “It’s easier to run for office than to run the office.” Running a campaign and creating a Congressional office are vastly different tasks. Setting up a House or Senate office includes all the challenges of starting a small business with all the red tape of a bureaucracy.
You have to buy furniture and computers, hire staff, set broad goals, create personnel policies, while complying with a dizzying array of rules established by the legislative branch of government. And, if that’s not enough, constituents will expect a freshman Member of Congress to articulate a vision that solves all of the nation’s problems — in less than 24 months.
Here are 10 mistakes to avoid.
1. Hiring someone you can’t fire. This is a good rule in any business, but in politics you’ll be under pressure from political supporters, friends and key stakeholders to hire the mayor’s daughter or your cousin’s nephew by marriage. Resist the urge with all your strength. You have very limited personnel resources when weighed against the mountain of work you’re expected to tackle. You’ll need the best and the brightest to get the job done.
2. Placing an early emphasis on policy and not enough on operations. You are about to start a policy wonk’s dream job. The world’s experts will parade before you. Brilliant minds await your phone call. And you’re expected to have an opinion on everything. To top it off, the world’s largest library (the Library of Congress) is across the street. However, you must avoid jumping into the deep end of the policy swimming pool and soaking it all in.
Yes, you have to get up to speed on some key issues and certainly be knowledgeable about what you’re voting on. But you also have to set up a constituent communications system, create office policies, hire staff and set up district offices. Getting things off to a smooth start will actually save you time down the road so you’ll have more time to devour that 40-page Government Accountability Office report on Mexican cattle inspections you’ve been dying to get to.
3. Not establishing clear communication and decision-making systems. If you’re like most freshmen, sometime around April next year your office will have its first mini-meltdown. A dispute will erupt between a district caseworker and a D.C. office legislative assistant, a crucial scheduling request won’t get answered, or a great opportunity will be missed to score a solid press hit back home. To juggle all of the demands on a Member, both internal and external, staff need clear guidelines on how decisions are made and communicated.
4. Not hiring enough D.C. veterans. Despite what you’ve been told, Congress is actually staffed by some pretty smart, dedicated public servants. While you may have campaigned “against Washington,” hiring some veterans of Capitol Hill offices will increase your likelihood of success in your first term.