Congress 101: Nonprofit's Guide Helps Freshmen Lawmakers Navigate Washington's Tricky Terrain09:31
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Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., right, walks and talks with Rep.-elect IIhan Omar, D-Minn., left, prior to a member-elect briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., right, walks and talks with Rep.-elect IIhan Omar, D-Minn., left, prior to a member-elect briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

U.S. Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, the youngest woman elected to Congress, has been giving the public glimpses into her work and life since Election Day on Instagram — from discovering the "secret" tunnels under the Capitol, to commuting to her new job, to doing laundry and making dinner.

Ocasio-Cortez is just one of the 85 new lawmakers set to join the House of Representatives, many of whom may have trouble navigating the new terrain to establish effective offices. The nonprofit Congressional Management Foundation, CMF, literally wrote the book on how to do so, though.

The book, titled "Setting Course" has been around since 1984 and lays out all the little-publicized congressional duties,  including hiring and firing, setting up family leave policies, buying computers, negotiating real estate leases for district offices and more, according to Brad Fitch, CEO and president of CMF (@congressfdn).

“Most people don't realize that Congress is made up of 535 small businesses, and they have to make the same decisions that small businesses have to make,” Fitch tells Here & Now's Robin Young.

“Setting up a congressional office has all the headaches of setting up a small business,” he says. “But [it has] all the red tape of a bureaucracy, because you have to follow all the rules the legislative branch lays out for members of Congress.”

Interview Highlights

On being elected to Congress having to change roles from campaigner to lawmaker

“Mario Cuomo had a great quote: 'You campaign in poetry. You Govern in prose.' And in fact, 'Setting Course' ... is kind of like, where do you dot the i's and cross the t's? That it really takes a candidate shifting from that role of being a campaigner to being a legislator, and they are very different responsibilities.

“We also point out in our book that being a legislator isn't just about passing laws. It's about running a congressional office, it's about leading a team of people. If you're a United States senator that's been around for a while, you could have over a hundred staff members. That's a pretty sizable organization that you have to be mindful of, and so you have to have the apparatus and the organizational structure to be more effective, and those members that run their businesses — which their congressional offices are more effectively — they're better for their constituents, they're more effective legislators and they tend to be in office longer.”

"We often see people that have dynamic communication skills on the campaign trail, but they just don't have the ability to translate that into managerial skills or to be more effective."

Brad Fitch

On whether he feels like there is a difference between the new incoming class of representatives and previous classes

“This is my seventh class that I have participated in helping with orientation since I've been affiliated with CMF, and there are certain classes that [just have] a little more energy: the Class of 2011, of course, when the Tea Party came in; historically, the Class of '74, the ‘Watergate Babies,’ was definitely a class like that. We'll have to see if they live up to their promise, but there's certainly a lot more energy, and there's certainly cohesiveness — there often is with freshman classes — but we'll have to see whether or not that cohesiveness remains two years from now.”

"There are ways that members can build trust with their constituents, but they have to focus on the trust-building aspect and not just the getting reelected or winning the argument perspective."

Brad Fitch

On whether he has seen congressional candidates who appeared promising on the campaign trail, but wound up running there offices in disarray when elected

“Unfortunately, yes. We often see people that have dynamic communication skills on the campaign trail, but they just don't have the ability to translate that into managerial skills or to be more effective, and you can often measure that by looking at where they are, say, in their third or fourth term. Are they on a path towards leadership? Have they gotten to an A-list committee that is a top committee, or are they still languishing? And we work with congressional offices behind the scenes, often individually, in strategic planning retreats and in helping identify their goals, and that's when we really get a frankly front-row view of which members are truly effective and just firing in all cylinders, and the ones that are not.”

On whether he thinks CMF can build trust between constituents and their representatives

“We have certainly seen ways that members can do it, and we try to coach them to do that. One of the ways is to not fall into the trap that a lot of politicians fall into of defending everything they do in a way that frankly makes them look defensive and not like a leader. We've also seen some members do some really effective things with online and telephone town hall meetings. I know that sounds very technological, but they're scalable. You can get a million people into a telephone town hall meeting now, and so you could spend literally an hour with your constituents. So there are ways that members can build trust with their constituents, but they have to focus on the trust-building aspect and not just the getting reelected or winning the argument perspective.”

On whether freshman orientation for lawmakers is similar to freshman orientation for undergraduate college students

“Well, certainly the House has been described like high school, and I think that's very much an apt analogy. The Senate is more like a big club of equals, but there's certainly a hierarchy in the House of Representatives that [has] been there since the founding of the country and of the Congress, and so members do come in a little wide-eyed, a little lost, a little unknown. Sure, we have a number of members of Congress try to go through or around the security, because they're not known yet, and that's just a common thing that happens every two years with new members of Congress.

“Every class has its celebrities. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez now known as AOC, Dan Crenshaw has already been on Saturday Night Live, and we've seen other classes that have had celebrities, whether they have been basketball stars or people that have made that name for themselves in the business community, and sometimes they are able to translate that celebrity status into power and into being more effective for their lawmakers, or sometimes they fizzle out."

On U.S. Rep.-elect Dan Crenshaw’s response to Saturday Night Live's controversial sketch on him, and the characteristics of good representatives

“I have to say, I did applaud [Crenshaw’s response]. I especially applauded the op-ed piece that he wrote later on, which pointed out that he didn't have to just jump to attack people who attacked him, and that it probably is one of the things that needs to change in Washington. It showed a degree of, frankly, political maturity that you don't expect in freshmen lawmakers, but we often see it behind the scenes, and unfortunately the American public doesn't always see that type of legislator. They see, frankly, the cad or the criminal that gets caught at something.

“By and large, the one thing that's similar to this class that I've seen in other classes is America is sending the best to the United States House and Senate — people that really do deserve to be great public servants, [they've] already decided to make a significant sacrifice on behalf of their constituents. The average work week for a member of the House is 70 hours a week. Now, I'm talking about their work ethic, not their work product. I know that their work product is not really well respected, but they're dedicated people. And that's one of the things that we get to see at the Congressional Management Foundation are these wonderful public servants who really do want to make a difference for their constituents.


Francesca Paris produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Jackson Cote adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on December 3, 2018.

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