By Debbie Siegelbaum - 07/19/11 11:03 PM EDT
Going from pizzeria owner to congressman might sound like an unrelated career leap, but freshman Rep. Bobby Schilling (R-Ill.) is using his business experience to his advantage in his new role.
Joining Congress “was very similar to firing up my own brand-new business,” he said. “I think the business experience really did help me, because I was able to really ask a lot of key questions.”
He also reached out to more experienced members to help train his staff, a strategy he used at his restaurant back home.
“We’ve sent district staffers to [Rep. Aaron] Schock’s [R-Ill.] office — especially when it comes to the casework — because a lot of this is all new stuff to us,” he said. “They’ll spend a full day with them. That way they’ve got a pretty good idea what’s going on.”
Schilling is just one of many new lawmakers bringing their business acumen to the political realm as they face immediate hiring, budgeting and management decisions in forming their Washington and district offices.
“Setting up a congressional office has all of the headaches of building a small business with all of the red tape of a bureaucracy,” said Bradford Fitch, president and CEO of the nonpartisan Congressional Management Foundation.
“I think one of the challenges [the former business owners] face is when you’re in a business … the world is your whiteboard,” Fitch said. “Usually you have a lot of flexibility on what you can do; there aren’t as many rules. They tend to be a little surprised by the bureaucracy involved.”
This state of affairs affected freshman Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), whose family operates a farm-equipment dealership. The congressman recalled sitting through a congressional orientation session involving quite a bit of red tape.
“I remember at one point somebody leaning over to me and saying, ‘Didn’t we run for office to cut this stuff?’ ” he said.
Business owner Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.), who’s serving his first full term since winning a May 2010 special election, echoed the sentiment.
“The small-business owner’s perspective and solutions may conflict with the politics of the past and how Washington operates,” he said. “We’re more transparent, more quick to adapt to problems or situations and adapt solutions. We’re very vision-oriented, entrepreneurial-minded, as opposed to the short-term viewpoint that Washington seems to be.”
But overcoming that barrier can provide a significant benefit and fresh approach to political problems.
“You have a collective mindset of entrepreneurs that are saying, ‘Wait, the ultimate goal and the objective is this, now let’s plan on how we get there,’ ” Graves said. “So we have a broader view of how we get somewhere, and it’s identifying that objective and goal and what are the steps necessary.”
That forward-focused mindset, just as in business, can help insulate congressmen from impending budget constraints.
Earlier this month, the House Appropriations Committee proposed a 6.4 percent cut to leadership, committee and personal office budgets for the next fiscal year.
The 2012 Legislative Branch Appropriations bill provides annual funding for House lawmakers’ offices, and could spell significant decreases in members’ representational allowances.
That could mean difficult choices down the line for lawmakers when it comes to staff and resources. But many freshman congressmen report they are in good shape for facing any such cuts.
Former Army Lt. Col. Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) has utilized his experience in the military — operating missions on constrained budgets — to his advantage. He directed his staff to come in anywhere from 10 to 15 percent under budget this year, with plans to return the surplus funding to the Treasury Department.
It’s “about how you do more with less,” he said. “That’s what we have to learn to do here.”
The Congressional Management Foundation’s Fitch said he has noticed a new mentality in the 112th Congress’s freshman class.
“We wondered, with this being a kind of anti-Washington crowd coming in this year, whether we were going to face any, frankly, resistance of learning how to set up a congressional office,” he said.
“And it was the budget session that really came clear it was the exact opposite, because this group kind of says that it came in on a message of fiscal discipline,” Fitch added. “They said, ‘Boy, we better not screw up our office budget, because that would really be bad.’ ”
“It’s about being good stewards with the budget that we get, and I think that that’s an obligation we have to the taxpayer,” Schilling said.
But freshman lawmakers’ optimism at operating under such steep cuts might be unrealistic in the long term. New members of Congress have a financial advantage that won’t be there down the line, according to Fitch.
“Also, freshman offices get a bit of a — I won’t call it a bonus, but they have this window at the end of their first year where they usually have leftover money, and that’s because they don’t staff up in January,” Fitch added, explaining that new members typically fill out their staffs in February or March.
“So you end up having money, so you can make investments in hardware, software, even paper products — anything you need,” he said.
Nevertheless, new lawmakers continue to identify ways to save money in their office operations.
For Schilling, that meant relocating to a cheaper district office than his predecessor.
“They wanted me to take that office that he had, and I thought it was too expensive … it was a huge office,” he said. “You can do the same work for the people with a smaller workspace.
“That’s that business background that comes into play.”