Make a Good First Impression and Keep Your Word: Advice to New Members of Congress from a Kennedy School Panel

December 2, 2004
Doug Gavel

It’s all about making good first impressions, keeping your word, under-promising and over-delivering. That’s the advice imparted by a panel of experienced Washington staffers to a group of incoming Congressional freshmen meeting at the Kennedy School this morning. The discussion was part of a three-day conference hosted for the new members by the School’s Institute of Politics. 

The discussion, titled “Congressional/White House Relations,” focused on practical ways in which the new members can build relationships, respect, and power during their first term on Capitol Hill.  

“You’ll never be more in danger of losing you seat than right now [at the beginning of your first term],” said Chris Cox, legislative assistant to President Bush. He advised the new members to quickly familiarize themselves with the rules, protocols, and “the system” on Capitol Hill.  First impressions are very important, he said, warning that for a new legislator small mistakes will be magnified.   

Susan Hirschmann, former chief of staff to Majority Whip Tom Delay, exhorted the new members to follow through on their commitments. “Your word is your bond and it is very sacred,” said Hirschmann. And attitude, she said is equally important. “When you work against someone, be pleasant. The way you go about it makes a difference.” 

Roger Porter, IBM professor of business and government at the Kennedy School who served as domestic policy advisor to several Republican presidents, also spoke at length about keeping promises. “There is nothing more valuable than your word…be hesitant to give it,” he said. 

Lorraine Miller, director of governmental relations for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, reminded the new members that they will be met on all fronts with appeals for their votes and their time.

“You are entering what I call the super pit of solicitation,” she said. “You have to decide pretty quickly on your priorities.” Miller also discouraged the new members from speaking on the floor too often. “There is no way you can be an expert on every issue that comes down the pike.” It is better to be viewed as someone with a depth of knowledge on a few issues than someone with little knowledge who speaks out on everything, she said.

Hirschmann said the notion of newcomers as having to be seen and not heard is no longer true. “Good ideas still rule in Washington,” she said. “You can do as much as you wish in your first term….[But] whatever you want to do, have a strategy and work it hard.”

Philip Sharp, director of the Institute of Politics, moderated the event which was attended by 23 of the 37 newly elected legislators.

Photos by Doug Gavel, Kennedy School Office of Communications and Public Affairs

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Forum attendees image

New Members of Congress listening attentively to legislative assistant to President Bush, Chris Cox.

Forum attendees image

New Members of Congress listening attentively to legislative assistant to President Bush, Chris Cox.