7 Mistakes to Avoid When Setting Up a Congressional Office | Commentary

Tip O’Neill 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. During the past 37 years the Congressional Management Foundation has helped thousands of new members of Congress and their staffs set up freshman offices. Here are seven 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.

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 soak it all in. 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 read.

3. Not establishing clear communication and decision-making systems. If you’re like most freshmen, sometime around April 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 to score a solid press hit back home will be missed. 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.

5. Hiring your whole staff at once. In January you need a skeleton staff, but members-elect should not plan on completing the hiring process until February. Once you learn your committee assignments and engage in a little early planning, then you can hire your legislative assistants and caseworkers.

6. Making an early promise to give back some of your budget. Not spending all of your office budget is a symbolic gesture, and that symbolism may be very important to you. However, it is best to assess your needs before you make that promise. Also, while you might get a political benefit from the gesture, know that it comes with a political cost as well. In other words, how much could your constituents benefit if you were able to hire another caseworker or legislative assistant with the money you have promised not to use?

7. Trying to answer the mail before you’re ready. In January you get the keys to your office and big pile of mail that’s been piling up for you since Election Day. Being a politician, your natural inclination will be to say to your skeleton staff, “We have to answer these all individually!” Here’s the rub: you can’t. A constituent mail operation is a mass communications system. Until you have the resources and systems in place, you’ll have to bite the bullet and reply with a uniform form letter or email. Keep in mind what the constituents really want: to know you’re listening.

Mario Cuomo once said, “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.” Building your freshman office is like writing the first chapter of your congressional biography. And keep this final thought in mind: When they go to the polls in 2016, voters won’t be thinking about your first six months in office, they’ll be thinking about the last six months. Starting your first term well increases the likelihood you will end your first term well.

Bradford Fitch is the president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, and former congressional staffer. See related story on Page 3.*