The First 90 Days: Congressional Transitions Ahead – Kogod Now
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Kogod Now / Fall 2012  / The First 90 Days: Congressional Transitions Ahead

The First 90 Days: Congressional Transitions Ahead

With so much focus on the presidential faceoff in November, it can be easy to forget that the executive branch is only one-third of the US government. Regardless of the presidential victor, there are sure to be significant shake-ups in Congress, where all 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs.

Right now, those aspiring representatives are fixated on November 6, and rightly so. But once they’re voted into office—indeed, that very week—they will need to begin the arduous process of transitioning into a foreign role.

That’s where Executive-in-Residence Meredith Persily Lamel comes in. As the former Director of Training and Consulting for the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF), she facilitated 30 retreats annually for House and Senate offices, and ran numerous leadership and management training programs.

Newly elected members of Congress especially seek her expertise, as they arrive at the Capitol from divergent professional backgrounds. They don’t always have extensive experience managing day-to-day business operations, including office staff and payroll.

Freshmen Roadmap

You Won!
Relax and release stress from the campaign trail, but don’t take too long—a few days are all you can spare.

Determine Your Overall Goals
What kind of member do you want to be—a party insider, or one who serves constituents but may not be well known in Washington?

Make Decisions About Personal Circumstances

  • Are you going to relocate to DC, or maintain permanent residence in your home state and commute when Congress is in session?
    If you commute, find somewhere close to Capitol Hill to stay, because you probably won’t be bringing a car.

  1. If you relocate, where will you live? Will your spouse need to find a new job? Which school will your children attend, assuming you have them?
  • • Few representatives will choose to raise their families in DC to start. They may later move their families if they gain leadership positions that make it difficult to return home.
  • • Representatives who relocate often live near Capitol Hill, in upper Northwest DC, or in lower Montgomery County, Maryland.
  • • Popular schools for children of representatives include Georgetown Day School, Maret School, and Gonzaga College High School, as well as various DC public schools.
Informal Lobbying for Committee Assignments

  1. The House has 21 permanent committees; most have many subcommittees. The ratio of Republicans to Democrats on committees is approximately the same as the ratio of the overall House. Thus, if the Dems take back more overall seats this year, they’ll also be able to take back more committee seats.
  2. Committee assignments will not be finalized until December or January, but informal jockeying for open committee positions begins immediately after Election Day.
  3. Be prepared for disappointment: very few freshmen get appointed to their first-choice committees.

Determine your office management structure
Begin hiring core staff, such as your chief of staff, legislative directors, and press secretary

See what technology you have inherited from your district predecessor, and determine remaining technological needs

  1. Technology is passed down between individual district representatives, not by physical offices.
  2. Check your inventory: is there a discrepancy between what it states and what is actually in your office?
  3. Freshmen will be randomly assigned to the least sought-after physical offices. Returning members have the chance to upgrade to a better office based on their seniority—but many will choose to stay put, so as not to deal with the hassle of relocating.
  4. Consider how remote access and telecommuting will work. How will you communicate with your staff? Will everyone get a Blackberry or iPhone? What types of data security measures will you take, and how will emails be read and answered?
Contact predecessor’s staff to discuss transition and request documents.

Complete the Hiring of
Core Staff

Finalize your First-Year

Establish District and/or State Offices

  1. You will want to have at least once office open be the first day of the new Congress, to demonstrate that your are “open for business.”
  2. You don’t want to overcommit, however, to too many district offices. It will be much easier to open new offices later than to shut down one that you opened prematurely.
  3. By the way, draw up plans for these offices first, then work on actually opening them.
  4. Symbolism counts: you may want to keep your predecessor’s district office(s), but if your strategic plan calls for more or fewer offices, or in different parts of town, now is the time to “sell” these changes to the public.

Attend orientation programs and party caucuses.

Make sure your core staff is ready to go by the first day of the new Congress. Someone needs to answer the phones and handle the mail.

Hire Additional Office Staff

Open the first district state office
(if applicable)

“Meredith brought the skills she developed in the private sector and applied them to the congressional environment,” said Bradford Fitch, CMF’s president and CEO. “We’re always looking for ways to put her in front of senior managers in Congress.”

And this year’s election is particularly ripe for congressional transition, due to recent redistricting that was carried out to reflect the results of the 2010 Census. These changes in district representation, combined with the retirement of 42 House incumbents and the possibility of a party switch in the Oval Office, mean that there will be a great many handoffs in the House. Even victorious incumbents may have staff movement if they are granted different committee assignments requiring outside expertise.

States such as New York (-2) and Ohio (-2) will lose seats in the House, while Texas (+4) and Florida (+2) will gain seats. Others will retain the same total number of representatives, but redistricting within the states has many predicting that the partisan divide will shift in favor of the Republicans (North Carolina, Indiana) or Democrats (Maryland, California), according to the Cook Political Report as of June 2012.

What kind of member do you want to be?

• Advocates ideological interests, seeks to accumulate more legislative power and rise up committee ladder
• Excellent people skills, enjoys legislative process, forms alliances, comfortable with media

• Promotes interests of own party, seeks to move up party structure
• Interested in big picture rather than details of legislation, skilled at organizing and strategizing, excellent media/communication skills

• Sees the interests of constituents as primary concern; receives high visibility back home but less in Washington
• More service-minded than ideologically minded; interested in tangible outcomes rather than broad policy questions

• Advocates good public policy, tries to do “what is right” vs. politically expedient, wants to be seen as rising above the political fray
• Interested in big-picture ideas, doesn’t enjoy insider politics, good communication skills and ability to frame ideas

• Influences process by influencing debate through rhetoric and criticism, promotes change or new approaches, wants to be viewed as bold and honest
• Comfortable operating independently, outspoken and often risk-taking, does not enjoy courting colleagues

Courtesy of the Congressional Management Foundation

Persily Lamel recognizes that up until Election Day, all that matters is getting elected. Yet while the natural inclination of members-elect may be to take November and December to relax after a hard-fought campaign, they need to make the most of the transition period.

The critical first step for incoming freshmen is to nail down their priorities. Determining their overall goals will help answer the logistical questions that must be addressed in the weeks leading up to the day they assume office.

Incoming freshmen need to deal with relocation to DC, and then quickly start informal lobbying for prime committee assignments and acclimating to the congressional environment. Hiring a core staff to begin serving constituents is very important.

But members should be careful not to over-hire too quickly, even if it means starting their terms short-staffed. The CMF guidebook Setting Course, first developed as a joint publication with American University, explains that while a core staff should be hired in November and December, the remainder should be hired only “when you have finalized your goals, understand your budget, and have the time and resources necessary to hire the right candidates.” In many cases, this does not occur until late April or early May.

The key is to be politically savvy early on, according to Persily Lamel. The congressional schedule can be merciless, so new members need to be ready to serve their constituents as soon as the election is over. If not, they may be headed back home in just two short years.

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