Practical Advice for a Practically New Congress

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Nearly everyone in Congress has a fresh role, including newly arrived lawmakers who are joining the mix. Long-serving members have plenty of practical advice to share on how to succeed, including "work like hell" and "be nice."

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A switch in party control of the House of Representatives changes a lot of things for lawmakers and staff. That's true if you've been there for decades or you've just arrived, or if you're finally in the majority or you've been banished to the minority.

And NPR's Andrea Seabrook has collected some advice for lawmakers.

ANDREA SEABROOK: Let's start with advice for the new members of Congress. Democrat Al Green of Texas says, though he's only been in the House for two years, he's learned this: pick a good staff.

Representative AL GREEN (Democrat, Texas): Because while a congressperson can get a lot done, the staff can get a lot more done. Get a capable, competent, qualified staff, and I assure you you'll do well.

SEABROOK: Michigan Democrat John Dingell had only three words for the freshmen: work like hell. That's been a success for Dingell; he's the longest-serving current member of the House, and he still eats peanut butter and jelly at his desk every day.

New York Democrat Louise Slaughter couldn't even find three words for the new Congressmen.

Representative LOUISE SLAUGHTER (Democrat, New York): Many of them came from legislatures; many of them ran state legislatures.

SEABROOK: So you don't have any advice for them?

Representative SLAUGHTER: I don't think they need any. If they ever want any from an older person I'd be happy to do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Representative SLAUGHTER: But I've been so impressed with them. They're really quite fantastic.

SEABROOK: And one last piece of advice for the newbies...

Representative JEFF FLAKE (Republican, Arizona): From somebody who just got kicked off his committee? I mean, I don't think they want advice from me.

SEABROOK: Congressman Jeff Flake is a maverick Republican from Arizona who doesn't always stick with his party. He opposed government wiretapping, for example, and he's not scared to call fellow Republicans earmarks - pork. So Republicans just kicked him off the Judiciary Committee.

Representative FLAKE: I was told we're not going to reward bad behavior anymore.

SEABROOK: You were literally told this?

Representative FLAKE: Yeah. So that was behind the scenes. The official reason is they were just freeing up space for, you know, others.

SEABROOK: So after all this, would Flake advice lawmakers against striking out on their own?

Representative FLAKE: No. The benefits far outweigh the punishment, certainly. I mean, if you come here, you spend time away from family; it's not a particularly high-paying job, and if you can't, you know, have fun pushing what you want to push, it's not worth it.

SEABROOK: Well then, how about some advice for the Democratic Party leaders taking over the majority for the first time in 12 years? Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings said his party must maintain humility.

Representative ELIJAH CUMMINGS (Democrat, Maryland): I think the natural inclination would be to exclude Republicans from various activities and various discussions, like they did to us. But I think that we need to take some advice, all of us, from the American people. The American people want us to work together to solve their problems.

SEABROOK: And what about the other side of the aisle; Republicans now in the minority? John Boehner, the top Republican, had this advice as he handed the speaker's gavel to Democrat Nancy Pelosi.

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (Republican, Ohio): Sometimes what people call partisanship is really a deep disagreement over a means to a shared goal. And we should welcome that conversation, encourage it, enjoy it, and be nice about it.

SEABROOK: So for all you members of Congress out there, or those who'd like to judge their progress, here's a recap. One: pick good people to work with. Two: work like hell. Three: do your own thing. Four: maintain humility. And five: be nice. Sage advice from members of Congress to members of Congress, though maybe these things apply other places, too?

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.

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