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Fresh on the heels of their victories in last month’s election, some two dozen incoming members of Congress’ freshmen class assembled at the Kennedy School this week for a three-day orientation session.
Workshops and panel discussions focused on the economy, the federal budget, foreign policy, globalization, demographics, legislative oversight, public leadership and working with the press.
The single public session on the agenda was dedicated to WhiteHouse/Congressional relations and featured panelists Steve Elmendorf, chief of staff for House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt and Susan Hirschmann, former chief of staff to House Majority Whip Tom DeLay. Dan Glickman, director of the Institute of Politics (IOP) chaired the panel.
Kennedy School faculty members David Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership, and Roger Porter, professor of business and government joined in the lively discussion that touched on ways new members can maximize their effectiveness in Washington.
“There’s a tendency for the people in the White House to think they are a lot stronger than you are,” Elmendorf told the new members. “But as a collective, you are just as important as the president. Don’t let people at the White House push you around.”
Elmendorf urged the new members to “decide early” before casting a big vote and to “exercise caution” before trying to make a deal with the White House. “There aren’t too many secrets in the Congress,” he said.
“Be careful of the deals you make and the conversations you have.”
Hirschmann spoke of the importance of establishing strong relations with senior members of congress, especially those who can help push key legislation along. She also strongly recommended that the new members air their concerns “privately, and not in the press because when you go to the press it becomes much harder to deal with.”
Gergen, who has spent time advising four different presidential administrations, stressed the importance of “getting to know Washington,” telling the new members that the more time they spend developing relationships the more effective they’ll be on Capitol Hill. “Don’t just spend two-and-a-half days a week there. Think of Washington as a second home,” he stated.
Porter, who worked as an economic advisor in the Ford, Reagan, and George Bush I administrations, told the new members to do their homework. “There is no substitute for being clear, for being persistent, for being realistic, for being sensible. If you follow these guidelines, you’ll be far along the road to success,” he said.
The orientation was sponsored by the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics. Among those new members in attendance were Kennedy School alumni Katherine Harris MPA 97 (R/FL) and Christopher Van Hollen MPP 85 (D/MD).