• Reorganize your team. You will need, in addition to cracker-jack Congressional relations staff, a deputy for consistency and coherence. It’s crucial that a top staffer — someone who regularly lunches with the agency head — be assigned to work with Congressional affairs to ensure that communications to Congress are consistent.
A typical scenario: One assistant secretary is happy to come brief the Speaker’s staff on a policy issue; another assistant secretary refuses to brief the Speaker’s staff without minority staff present. Inconsistency admits incoherence, undermines the policy involved and will tangle you up in endless fights. Minimize it at all costs, to the point of insisting that nobody at the agency can talk to Congress without the help of Congressional affairs. Your top officials will hate this. Too bad. Don’t give even talented people free rein.
• Don’t assert what you don’t know for a fact. Top agency officials will almost always be testifying or responding to facts that are not personal to them. Why didn’t you wait another 48 hours to kill people at Waco? Who waived the procurement rule for Goldman Sachs? Resist the temptation to repeat facts or assertions of law put in front of you by staff unless you are absolutely certain they are true — i.e., never. There’s no shame in “I am told ... ,” or “the lawyers in OLC advise me that ... ,” etc.
• Don’t drink too much liquid. Well into my third hour of testimony before a committee, I realized I wasn’t going to make it without a break. Do you speak this fact into the microphone, with C-SPAN covering it live? Pass a note to the staff? Think ruefully of that travel catheter your brother gave you as a gag gift? I opted for the note through staff. Then-Chairman Dan Burton announced my problem live, on camera. I still twitch at the memory.
Robert Raben, president of the Raben Group, previously served as assistant attorney general for legislative affairs and Democratic counsel to the House Judiciary Committee.