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The Transition to Congress: Defining a Role for the New Member

For Members-elect and their aides, November is a time of relief and excitement. Although the hard fought campaign is over, now is when the real work begins – ensuring a successful transition to Congress. Fortunately, CMF offers several resources for Members-elect in setting up their offices, including our signature guidebook Setting Course, and an orientation workshop for the staff of new Members.

The next 60 days are crucial for Members-elect and their aides. Setting up a congressional office requires effective decision-making and completing hundreds of tasks. During these transitional months, CMF will highlight some of the most critical activities new Members and staff must focus on.

One of the critical first tasks is to consider the Member’s role in Congress. Successful Members recognize early on that there are many diverging paths to power and figure out which path they should take. Members who do not understand that they cannot do it all tend to fail and grow frustrated with their jobs.

In CMF’s experience, Members tend to play five primary roles in Congress. Generally, Members can “major” in one role and “minor” in another (provided they are not incompatible). Each role has specific goals/objectives and personal attributes:

ROLE

GOALS

PERSONAL ATTRIBUTES

Legislative Insider
  • Advocating ideological interests and/or making the legislative process work
  • Accumulating more legislative power; rising up the committee ladder
  • Enjoys working the legislative process
  • Interested in developing legislative expertise
  • Excellent people skills
  • Effective negotiator and alliance builder
Party Insider
  • Promoting the interests and ideology of his or her party
  • Attaining more power by moving up through the party structure
  • Interested in big picture, rather than details of legislation
  • Skilled at organizing and strategizing
  • Interested, skilled in electoral politics
  • Excellent media/communications skills
Ombudsman
  • Promoting the interests of the district/state and providing outstanding constituent services
  • Receiving high visibility back home
  • More service-minded than ideologically-minded
  • Interested in tangible outcomes rather than broad policy questions
Statesman
  • Advocating good public policy, doing “what is right” vs. politically expedient
  • Being viewed as rising above the political fray when appropriate
  • Exercising both internal and external power
  • More interested in big picture ideas than the details of legislation
  • Doesn't enjoy courting colleagues and engaging in insider politics
  • Excellent media/communications skills
  • Enjoys playing with and framing ideas
Outsider
  • Influencing the process by influencing debate through rhetoric and criticism
  • Advocating change or new approaches
  • Being viewed as bold and honest, willing to do “what is right” or challenging the status quo
  • Comfortable operating independently rather than as part of a team
  • Doesn't enjoy courting colleagues and engaging in insider politics
  • Outspoken and sometimes risk-taking
  • Excellent media/communications skills

So how do you know which role is right for you? When selecting a role or determining your “fit” in Congress, analyze and balance the following four factors:

  1. The Member’s personal strengths and weaknesses and how they match the activities of Congress.
  2. The Member’s mission or what the Member hopes to accomplish through his or her tenure in Congress.
  3. The needs of the district or state.
  4. Political circumstances (i.e., electoral strength, constituent expectations, future political plans, and the general political climate).

Deciding how the Member’s personal attributes will affect the congressional workplace is the most difficult step in this process. It may require detailed self-analysis and possibly confronting some painful realities, such as that the Member may not have skills necessary for his or her desired role.

To conduct an honest assessment of strengths and weaknesses, the Member should not rely solely on his or her own judgment. Instead, seek feedback from those who know the Member well.

Finally, not all Members will be able to define the right role in Congress early on. Some experience and experimentation may be needed. Members should take the time they need to figure this out while still setting annual goals for themselves and their office.

The costliest and most common mistake is not selecting the wrong role, but selecting none at all.

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Excerpted from Chapter 9, “Defining Your Role In Congress,” in Setting Course: A Congressional Management Guide, © Congressional Management Foundation.

 
 
 

ABOUT CMF

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CMF is a 501(c)(3) nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to helping Congress and its Members meet the evolving needs and expectations of an engaged and informed 21st century citizenry.

Our work focuses on improving congressional operations and enhancing citizen engagement through research, publications, training, and management services.

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Communicating with Congress The Internet forever changed how citizens and Congress interacts. The goal of this project is to facilitate a more meaningful democratic dialogue.

 

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Gold Mouse Project
Congress should effectively communicate with and serve citizens online. CMF assesses congressional websites to identify best and innovative practices that can be more widely adopted by the House and Senate.

 

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Inside the Hill
Produced by Founding Partner Fleishman-Hillard, this video series allows you to hear directly from Members and staff on how technology is changing the way Congress works.

 

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Life in Congress
This novel research project by CMF and the Society for Human Resource Management has two goals: identify the factors that motivate congressional staff and shed some light on Congress as a workplace.

 

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21st Century Town Hall Meetings CMF seeks to continue our innovative work in this area by conducting comparative research on in-person town halls, online town halls, and telephone town halls.