Mackowiak: Advice for New Members of Congress

Posted November 17, 2010 at 12:13pm

The new Members of the 112th Congress are in Washington, D.C., this week for orientation, where they will learn about House rules, ethics and security procedures, discover how to get around the Capitol complex, take ownership of their new BlackBerry and receive their office assignment through a marathon lottery.

The class of more than 60 Republican freshmen is made up mostly of people who have not been in politics before, and for many this may be their first extended trip to D.C.

As they embark on their new political careers, they should work to avoid poor decisions and early mistakes. These rules may help:

Staff are the top priority: Hiring an effective, experienced and knowledgeable Congressional staff is the first priority for any incoming Member. Capitol Hill is not the campaign trail, and most campaign aides are not experienced enough to work on the Hill. Hire a chief of staff who knows your district and is wise to the ways of Washington. Let them make additional hires for legislative and communications staff. Hire a scheduler that can handle stress and get along with your spouse. Your staff will do 80 percent of the work, so make sure you hire the right people for the right jobs.

Take ethics seriously: No incoming Member of Congress comes to Washington to violate federal law or break ethics rules. But many do and some of them remain in federal prison. Make sure that you fully understand the ethics rules regarding public office and campaign operations and the rules regarding gifts. Always check with the ethics committee before you take a trip. If something does not feel right, it probably isn’t.

Social media rules: Everything on social media platforms can potentially hurt your political career. That includes your staff, your family and even yourself. If you want to use Twitter, be careful. Now that you are a Member of Congress, everyone is watching.

Always be raising: Most Congressional campaigns cost $1.5 million to $2 million, and the clock is already ticking on your re-election, which is now only 23 months away. Poor early fundraising invites challengers — from both parties. As a rule, you should be raising $5,000 a day when you are in Washington, or at least $20,000 a week. The early fundraising quarters are the most important. No politician ever regretted raising too much money.

Work horse vs. show horse: It is said that there are two types of politicians: work horses and show horses. Decide which one you are and stick to it. Media attention can help you, but it can also hurt you. D.C.-based media will do very little for you back home, so press in your district must always be the priority. More senior Members will respect freshmen who quietly go about their business, attend every committee hearing and respect seniority.

Make a friend: D.C. is a lonely place. Everyone wants to be your friend, but few are actually your friends. It is important that you make at least one close friend on each side of the aisle, perhaps one Democratic and one Republican classmate. And you should find a mentor who can help you learn the ropes, avoid mistakes and answer questions. Choose wisely.

D.C. is not home: A friend once told me that in Washington, the weekdays are more fun than the weekends. Every night there are receptions and events to attend. The nation’s capital is where you happen to work. Treat it like an office: Come early, work hard and leave as soon as you can. Go home every weekend to show your constituents that you do not intend to catch Potomac Fever. Hold town hall meetings and listen. D.C. is full of predators, and they will come after you. Give them fewer opportunities to do so.

You have won election to Congress and now you have a chance to make a difference. If you avoid poor decisions and early mistakes, you may even be able to stick around long enough to achieve some of your goals.

Matt Mackowiak, a former press secretary in the Senate who managed the campaign of Rep.-elect Bill Flores (R-Texas), is president of the Potomac Strategy Group. He can be reached at matt@potomacstrategygroup.com.