Current wisdom indicates that approximately 40-45 members of the House, and six to nine senators, will be leaving Congress — either voluntarily or otherwise. This translates to more than 1,000 staffers also “transitioning” after the election.
For some, it may be a rude, eye-opening and blunt transition.
Before I was elected to Congress, I worked as a longtime staffer to a prominent House member who served for nearly 25 years. His name graced (and still does grace) federal buildings, schools, bridges and local parks. To me, he was and is a modern-day hero and mentor. But after I was elected and he was about to leave office, he told me something, which at the time failed to register: “When you’re in, you’re in; when you’re out, you’re out.”
Shortly after I began my first term, I was visiting one of the towns in my South Florida district. Walking down the street, I met a gentleman with whom I had become acquainted originally through my predecessor. It seemed to me that they were longtime buddies; quite often, he and my mentor had put their arms around one another’s shoulders and shared many stories. Suddenly, he now had his arm around me, and his first words were, “What ever happened to what’s-his-name?”
This was no joke. The gentleman had really forgotten the congressman’s name. For me, it was a pivotal moment; I then realized my friend and mentor had been right. When you leave office, you quickly learn who your true friends are.
I tell this story in the hope that it might resonate with those who are entering their last several months as a senator, representative or staff member. The story is particularly relevant for those who plan to make the transition from Capitol Hill to K Street. For those who think this transition will be easy, here are some facts about your soon-to-be new reality, unless you are a major star:
• If you are hired by a K Street firm, lobbying organization or law firm and being paid handsomely, remember that the money is coming out of someone’s pocket. That is, sooner or later, you will be expected to generate revenue that is double or even triple the amount you are being paid.
• Know the rules and your new limitations. Generally, you will not have anyone advancing for you. You have to rely on your list of contacts, and realize you are the caller and the asker, not the person being courted. I learned quickly the phone system works quite differently from downtown to Capitol Hill, rather than vice versa. You will find that it takes longer to have calls returned, if they are returned at all.
• Expect rejection and plenty of it. As a member, you may have 10,000 to 20,000 “friends” on your list. But, as a colleague once told me, count yourself fortunate if you have a dozen true friends. You will find out who they are very quickly after you leave the Hill.
• You no longer command the center of attention. Not everyone is interested in every word you say throughout dinner. Even your golf game is likely to change. The “gimmes” on the golf course go away. You may find yourself asking: “Hey, what happened to my game?”
• Your knowledge is what will help you succeed. While I would like to think there is a mutual respect for people who have been in politics together, that is not enough. You need to understand procedure and policy. Knowing what is real and what is possible is essential. Your advice is a key commodity for your new employer.
• If you were abusive on the way up, you will be abused on the way out. A former chairman of a very prominent committee called me one day after I had left for the private sector, and he wanted a lobbying contract. As chairman, he had been very abusive, and in private life, he was not just rejected from contract work; he couldn’t even get people to respond to him. “Mica, I’m a chairman!” he said angrily after I asked for current curriculum vitae. “You’re talking to a chairman!” he said again before he hung up on me. But K Street said, “You were a chairman.”
As I understand it, he had a hard time making a living for the rest of his life.
History, of course, repeats itself over and over. And members will need to realize that the experiences I am describing will occur, whether they like it or not.
About 10 years after the “what’s-his-name” experience and right after I left Congress, I entered the Rayburn House Office Building. I looked at the marquee, which listed all the office numbers and names for members, and found myself astonished and perhaps even a little depressed to see “Mica, Daniel” no longer there. It was almost as though any evidence of my having been a part of the process had vanished. A humbling reminder, indeed, that when you’re in, you’re in, and when you’re out, you’re out.
To be clear, a life outside Congress and on K Street can be rewarding and fulfilling, and it has been so for me. But there are adjustments, and one needs to be prepared for the certain change.
Mica is the president and CEO of the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), which represents nearly 8,500 credit unions with 90 million members. Rep. Mica (D-Fla.) served in the House from 1979-1989.