How the new guys can keep their principles and get reelected

One-fifth of the 112th Congress is made up of new members.

That is huge.

Like the class of 1974 and the class of 1994, this new class will likely consist of serious legislators, complete jokers, future television stars, possible presidential candidates and maybe a felon or two.

The great thing about the House of Representatives is that it actually does represent a wide cross section of America.

The flavor of the new class is heavily scented with Tea.

The Tea Party revolutionaries, like the revolutionaries of previous electoral revolutions, come to Washington with complete disdain for a town that actually becomes quite livable for nine months of the year (it is absolutely brutal here in June, July and August).

People outside Washington snarl about the “inside the Beltway” crowd. And the new representatives who are coming here in the next couple of months have promised to change Washington forever.

I hope they are successful. Washington does need to be changed. Spending does need to be reined in. Special interests do need to have less influence. Backroom deals do need to be made more transparent. The legislative process does need to be fixed. The campaign laws do need to be reformed. And Washington needs to listen more and tell people how to live their lives at lot less.

But all that being said, the influence of the class of 2012 will wane if the majority of them lose in the next election. If the class wants to be more durable than a sandcastle built on the Atlantic City beach, it has to remember a few simple rules. Here they are:

Get home often: Meet as many of your constituents as often as you can. Make sure you explain what you are trying to do and why you are voting the way you do. Face the voters early, often and with a good deal of humility. And be prepared to defend yourselves.

Stay out of trouble: The more you work when you are in Washington, the better off you are. Don’t try to get rich being a congressman. Don’t hang out at the bars. Don’t take any trips you can’t explain to your constituents. Oscar Wilde once said, “I can resist anything but temptation.” Don’t be Oscar Wilde. Resist temptation.

Stay civil: The bigger a jerk you are, the more likely you are going to lose in the next election (example: Alan Grayson). Keep your frustrations to yourself. Be courteous. Use the language of the skilled parliamentarian. You can get more done and be more effective in the long run if people see you as principled but classy (example: Tom Coburn).

Make promises you can keep: Don’t guarantee results that have very little chance of happening. Don’t say that you are going to create 100 million new jobs. Don’t say that you are going to balance the budget in two years. Don’t say that you are going to single-handedly cure cancer. Vote your principles and vote your promises. But don’t over-promise only to under-deliver. Voters don’t like that.

Define early the differences between procedural votes and real votes: The other side is going to try to embarrass you with countless votes on procedural matters. They are going to try to say that a vote on the previous question is just like a vote to save Social Security, when the vote on the previous question is really just a vote to proceed with business. Don’t get suckered into voting with the other side on some procedural votes and not others. Stay consistent and keep your constituents informed about why you are being consistent.

Hire good staff: Being a member of Congress is a big job. It requires a lot of time and a lot of juggling. You can’t be everywhere at the same time. That means to be successful, you must hire staff who can do the work that you delegate to them. If you spend all of your time micromanaging your staff, you will not be effective as a leader for your district. Resist the temptation to bring all of your campaign staff with you. Campaigning is different from legislating. You blur the distinctions at your peril.

Follow the ethics rules: They may seem silly and stupid, but the ethics rules are there for a reason. Follow them, and if you don’t understand them, have somebody explain them to you. Don’t assume that everything you do is OK, because, well, you believe are ethical. Nobody goes into Congress thinking that they are unethical, but sometimes you might do something that breaks the rules. Get the training. Make sure your staff does the same. An easy way to lose reelection is to get caught in an ethics snafu.

Don’t be a pundit. Be a legislator: There are plenty of pundits out there, but not many people who get elected to serve in the Congress. Know the difference between getting on television to push an agenda and getting on television to get famous. Resist the temptation to wax eloquent on a variety of topics, and stay focused on what you came to Congress to accomplish.

Washington has some serious problems, and hopefully the class of 2010 can help fix them. But they will only be successful if they can stay longer than one term. It does democracy no good if the new members come in like a lion only to leave like a lamb.


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