This past November saw Democrats take back the House of Representatives, and a wave of new Representatives coming in from all backgrounds. In terms of diversity, it was a stark contrast to what you’ll see on the Republican side. They’re also bringing in a new energy and ideas. A few of them have attracted a lot of attention from the media and various liberal outlets. That’s all well and good, but there’s also a big pitfall that can await them.
A decade ago, we had the same situation. A wave of new representatives entering the House, and liberals were excited about the potential to enact their policies. One member stood out, for his willingness to say what many of them had thought about Republicans, and he bucked the party leadership on more than a few occasions. He became wildly popular on the liberal blogs, got invited onto a lot of news and talk shows, and the “left of the left” treated him like the second coming. Huge amounts of money poured into his campaign fund, to the point where he had the single largest campaign chest of any Representative. Then came the next election, and he was booted out of office. Resoundingly. At the end of his two years in office, he hadn’t accomplished anything of note legislatively, and his constituents didn’t like him at all. His name? Alan Grayson.
Now, looking back at my own blog, I can say that never bought into his hype. The reasons I didn’t? Simply because I knew a few things that he, and the various purists, were overlooking. The first thing is the ironclad rule in any legislature: Seniority counts. That means that the people who have been around for a while are going to get the plum committee assignments, leadership posts, and have the knowledge and relationships to get legislation introduced and passed. They know the rules, they know who they have to talk to, and they know the maneuvers. Those don’t come right away, as frustrating as that may be to the new arrivals. Which is why Grayson had so little to show at the end of his term. He was a freshman Congressman, and had little ability to get any major things done.
The second big thing? Don’t forget who sent you there. It’s where Grayson fell down. His office tended to blow off constituents, and when he did appear in his district, he lectured them instead of listening. Having national media attention, getting lots of adulation from various pundits, blogs, and news outlets is seductive. It’s not a bad thing, in fact, can be a very good thing, but they were not his constituents. The one area where new representatives can make a real difference, and the way they can get sent back again and again to build that nice seniority, is constituent services. People have all sorts of problems they’ll contact their representative about. It may be veterans benefits, immigration concerns, social security programs, or any of the myriad other government programs and functions that people run into. Being seen to be addressing those problems, even if they’re not “of national importance” or advancing the progressive agenda, builds a lot of goodwill, as does showing up to listen to your constituents on a regular basis. It doesn’t matter how many times you’re on national television, if you’re not out and about in your district, your constituents will feel you’re ignoring them. On the other hand, all those senior members?? They live by that, it’s how they got to be senior members.
I’m a sports fan, so I’ll use a metaphor. Every year, professional leagues hold a draft. The first round is always an exciting thing for a team’s fans, where they hope the next great player will be found. The one that will be a “franchise player,” the one that will take them to championships. But what each one of those draftees learns their first season is that they are rookies. No matter how good they were in college, everyone they’re playing with and against was just as good. The season’s longer, the demands are higher, and the speed of the game is faster. They’ll spend time sitting on the bench, and when (or if) they do play, they’ll make a lot of mistakes. The rookie season has a big learning curve. Some of those first rounders will become superstars, some will become good, solid role players, while some will be “busts.” The busts can’t handle the demands of the game, allow the money and fame to distract them, or just weren’t as good as people thought they were.
The first term in the House is a rookie season. There’s a lot a new Representative has to learn. They have to hire staffs, they have to learn where everything is, they have to learn the rules, they have to learn to legislate. It’s a lot to handle, and they’re in for a steep learning curve, and yes, they’re going to make mistakes. I’m excited to see the new class, and I think they’re bringing a lot of new ideas and energy to Congress. But, I also realize that they’re not going to get major legislation and their policy agendas done this first term. That’s the reality of being a freshman member. If they’re smart, they’ll learn from the best, the people who have been around a while and know how to get things done. If they think that the adulation they’re getting from the national and social media is a substitute for that? Well, there was one who did that… and he didn’t last. It’s the pitfall they should all beware of.