How It’s Done

Veteran lawmakers offer advice to the freshman class.

Newly elected freshman members of the upcoming 114th Congress pose for a class photo on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on November 18, 2014 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
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Sarah Mimms
Jan. 23, 2015, midnight

No one knows more about ad­just­ing to life on Cap­it­ol Hill than those who have done it them­selves — and even they some­times have a hard time keep­ing the de­tails straight. Both Chuck Schu­mer and John Mc­Cain got lost on the second day of the new Con­gress, each ra­cing in­to the wrong room for his re­spect­ive party’s weekly lunch. Ap­par­ently the two seni­or sen­at­ors briefly for­got that, when the Sen­ate ma­jor­ity changed hands, some long-stand­ing lo­gist­ics changed, too.

The mem­bers of the new fresh­man class, however, are look­ing at a far steep­er learn­ing curve. So Na­tion­al Journ­al asked some long­time law­makers in both cham­bers to think back to their early days un­der the dome and share some of their hard-won wis­dom with the new­comers now nav­ig­at­ing their own first months. The vet­er­ans weighed in with ad­vice on everything from how to pre­pare for the change in pace, to what pit­falls to avoid when hir­ing staffers. Their ed­ited and con­densed re­sponses are be­low.

By 1999, Marcy Kaptur had long since found her footing. (Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images) CQ-Roll Call,Inc.


on ad­just­ing to the fren­et­ic routine

I think that just mov­ing your body to 50 places in one day can be chal­len­ging — through the build­ings here, and the cam­pus, and just learn­ing where you have to go. It’s quite a hurdle, I think, for many who don’t real­ize the rig­or that is re­quired to deal with the vis­it­ors who come, the vari­ous or­gan­iz­a­tions, and so forth, and hand­ling the trav­el­ing back home. It’s quite a schedul­ing mara­thon. So I think — some people had their own busi­ness or they were in a classroom some­where or they had their own law firm — I think it ratchets up the num­ber of in­ter­ac­tions per hour per day. I think people have to ad­just to that. They’re just go­ing to have to learn by do­ing, and they’re go­ing to have to make in­tel­li­gent choices, and they’re go­ing to have to cre­ate a sched­ule in their own mind of the week and then cor­don off cer­tain times in their mind that are in­vi­ol­able. My ad­vice would be: Take it a day at a time, but try to plan your week as best as you can.


on join­ing the up­per cham­ber

It was over­whelm­ing to come to the Sen­ate, so you have to try to be­come com­fort­able. It took me a long time to be­come com­fort­able here. Not only with the Sen­ate pro­cess but kind of with the aura of the place — who I was serving there with, people I had read about, some­times. The pro­ced­ures are very, very dif­fer­ent from any pro­ced­ures I had dealt with as a loc­al le­gis­lat­ive of­fi­cial.

One of the things that I was really pleased with is that every­one tries to be help­ful. Doesn’t make any dif­fer­ence which party — every­body tries to be help­ful, mainly be­cause they’ve been there be­fore. So dozens of people come up, many of whom you’ve nev­er met be­fore, people you’ve read about, people you’ve heard about, come up and say, Hey, wel­come to the Sen­ate. You know, if there’s any­thing I can do. I live in a cer­tain part of town, or I live in a dif­fer­ent sub­urb, or whatever, so I can help with pick­ing out a house and telling you what schools are like.

and on hir­ing staff

It’s very, very com­plex, for lots of reas­ons. No. 1, you’ve got to have a bal­ance of people who really know your state. But you also have to have some people who know their way around here, so that’s a tough bal­ance. And try to get ref­er­ences that are really ac­cur­ate — be­cause every­one wants to help people who are leav­ing, per­haps em­bel­lish a little bit to help some­body who’s worked for them for a long time. One of the hard­est parts is not giv­ing a job to people who worked in your own cam­paign be­cause they’re not qual­i­fied enough to do what you have to have done here. It’s a very, very hard thing to do to say no to people who worked so hard for you for so many years. I have one par­tic­u­lar per­son in mind who I al­ways have felt badly, I just couldn’t hire her. She was ter­rif­ic but not in a po­s­i­tion I needed help in.

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John McCain joined the Senate in 1987. (Cynthia Johnson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images) The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

SEN. JOHN Mc­CAIN (R-Ar­iz.)

on mov­ing from the House to the Sen­ate

You have much more vis­ib­il­ity and at­ten­tion from the me­dia and your con­stitu­ents. You go from one of 435 to one of 100. You deal with it by know­ing what you’re talk­ing about and mak­ing sure that you un­der­stand that whatever you say is go­ing to get sig­ni­fic­ant cov­er­age. So you bet­ter know what you’re talk­ing about.


on bal­an­cing work and fam­ily

I’ll just tell you what worked for me. My chil­dren were all in pub­lic school when I came up here in the end of ‘94. And so we put off a de­cision un­til the end of the school year, and by then it was pretty clear to us that the best thing for our fam­ily was just to stay liv­ing in Tu­pelo and keep the kids in school there. My young­est was 7 at the time. My wife has con­tin­ued to work in a job in Mis­sis­sippi, and my kids have all gradu­ated from Tu­pelo pub­lic schools. I would come home on week­ends, and, of course, we have a num­ber of weeks where we’re home. And when you’re a rep­res­ent­at­ive, you can really pretty much get around your dis­trict and stay home al­most every night. It’s very un­usu­al to be away. So we made it work. And I was a good daddy. I made a lot of soft­ball and bas­ket­ball games and re­cit­als, and it worked for us.


on bal­an­cing work and fam­ily

It ac­tu­ally worked very well to have the fam­ily in the D.C. area. When I was elec­ted, the boys were 4 and 1. They’re now 18 and 15, and the older one is back home go­ing to col­lege. So it’s not like you give up your roots to move your fam­ily back here. And the oth­er thing is: When you’re home, you’re home. Every­body wants a piece of you when you get home. So it al­lows you, then, when you’re back in your dis­trict, to just fo­cus on the dis­trict. And then when you’re back in D.C., you take your votes and your com­mit­tee hear­ings, but then you can spend some time with your fam­ily in the even­ings, and maybe once every three week­ends you don’t fly back and you spend the week­end with your fam­ily.

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on how to get things done in the Cap­it­ol

In or­der to change Obama­care or fix No Child Left Be­hind or re­duce the debt, you’re go­ing to have to pass a bill. And in or­der to pass a bill, you’re go­ing to have to work with oth­er people. So my sug­ges­tion would be to con­sult as of­ten as you can with oth­er sen­at­ors, to listen and to look for areas of agree­ment. A good way to op­er­ate is to fo­cus on the 70 per­cent of things you can agree on and not on the 20 or 30 per­cent of things you dis­agree on.

and on learn­ing Sen­ate pro­ced­ure

The best way is two ways: One is to preside, be­cause then you watch and you talk to the par­lia­ment­ari­an and you see how it works. And the second is — just ask some­body.


on learn­ing House pro­ced­ure

It’s easy — cer­tainly if they’ve been in the le­gis­lature, it’s pretty easy to learn the ropes. It was cer­tainly a sur­prise to me, com­ing from the New York State Le­gis­lature, how close the pro­cess is. It’s pretty much the same. But I really re­com­mend study­ing very hard, be­ing a part of the things that are go­ing on here. It is the rarest of priv­ileges. There are only 435 of us in this whole coun­try. So make it count.


on how to earn the con­fid­ence of the Amer­ic­an people

I would say that the thing that a per­son needs to know is that we’re en­gaged in a time of our life as a coun­try where there are a lot of people who are scared; they’re wor­ried, and they’re ap­proach­ing many of their re­ac­tions from fear. So I would en­cour­age fresh­men to find a bal­ance and to speak, in­stead of about where someone is com­pletely wrong, tell them what is good and right and what we should be do­ing. That’d be my ad­vice. 


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