In Congress, First Impressions Matter

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

The next few months will be crucial ones for new members of Congress — not because of the legislation they'll be voting on, but because this is when they establish their reputations. As former Congressman Lee Hamilton explains, "In Congress, First Impressions Matter..."

The start of a new Congress is a time of hope for great accomplishments. For new members, though, it is also when they lay the groundwork for their careers on Capitol Hill. New members face a lot of difficult decisions early on, and their political reputations — both in Washington and at home — will be shaped by how they make them. 

This is partly because first impressions linger on Capitol Hill. Will a new member be a legislator or a limelight-seeking showboater? Will he or she focus on work inside Congress — drafting legislation and helping to shape strategy on policy — or on becoming known outside the institution? People in Congress watch one another closely, as does the press, and they begin to make judgments early; negative impressions can be very hard to overcome. 

The challenge, of course, is that being an effective member of Congress requires an astounding variety of skills, which also have to be learned early on. So if you were just starting up on Capitol Hill, what should you be doing? There are two arenas to focus on — inside Congress, and back in the district — and here's my advice for both. 

First, get to know your colleagues — both chambers, both parties. Attend social events, get together after work, do your best to be approachable and helpful. Personal relationships matter in Congress because they can help overcome ideological and political differences. You will be astounded by the number of times you ask your colleagues for help. 

Second, learn the rules of parliamentary procedure, because you'll need them if you want to be effective. Get to know House or Senate officers, such as the parliamentarian — they can help enormously if you let them. And while you're studying, pay close attention to the ethics rules in your chamber and then follow them; you'll save yourself and your staff much heartburn later. 

Third, work hard to get the best committee assignment you can for your district or state. Embrace its workload: attend meetings, be prepared, ask tough questions of witnesses, prepare amendments that will make legislation better. Let your colleagues know you are a serious legislator by picking an issue and championing it. Get to know as much as you possibly can about the bills you vote on — if you can get your colleagues coming to you for information or advice on bills, you're halfway to building a solid reputation. 

You can go the rest of the way by being thoughtful toward your colleagues. So, fourth, don't be a know-it-all or have a solution for every problem, and be informed, rational and reasonable. Support your leadership when you can and tell them early when you can't. You have to be true to yourself and your district — your leaders expect that. But they don't like to be surprised by an unexpected vote against their position. 

Fifth, hire an excellent staff. They are indispensable to your work. No matter how much you bone up on issues, there's always more to learn; they can help you. And if you want to win re-election, make sure you have top-notch aides for constituent service. A good staff will make you a better member of Congress. 

Sixth, don't ever forget your constituents. You work for them. Without their support, you'll end up back home permanently. 

So, seventh, you have to develop a strategy for communicating with them. A lot of Americans feel as though their representatives in Washington don't hear them and aren't interested — so the time-honored newsletter home isn't enough. Think about how you'll use the Web, social-networking tools, publicity, and your own visits to the district to reach as many people as possible and hear what they have to say. Travel home frequently: you simply cannot learn enough about your district or state, or get to know too many constituents. 

Eighth, pick a few projects back home that have broad support, and begin working hard to get them approved. Small triumphs early build confidence and support. 

Ninth, if you're in the House, plan now on how to get re-elected. Start raising money for your next campaign and think about staff and themes now. Two years is not a lot of time, and if you want to be effective in Congress, you'll need to win re-election. More than once. 

Finally, there's one other constituency you need to keep in mind: your family. I've seen more than one promising political career founder on the rocks of domestic discord. Take some time off to be with your spouse and children and to recharge yourself. It may surprise you after all the fine treatment you get as you travel around Capitol Hill and your district, but the world will muddle by without you for a few days. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)