So You've Won a Seat in Congress—Now What?

A  simple guide for how new members can find success (Hint: Fundraising, fundraising, and fundraising)

Congratulations! You campaigned hard—most likely for more than a year—you raised money, knocked on doors, held house parties, cut TV ads, and spoke to any group that would have you. It’s been a grueling campaign, but you won a seat in Congress. Now comes the real work, accomplishing all those things you promised on the campaign trail. You’re going to Washington to fix it, right? Now, hold on for a minute—there are some more important things on your to-do list first.

Some time in December, you need to come to D.C. for “freshman orientation.” You’ll meet other members of Congress, learn a little about how Congress works, and discover your fate in the office lottery. After that, you’ll go through the formality of party-leadership elections—not much to see here as a newbie. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll just vote for whoever is going to win anyway.

Then you’ll start hiring. Twenty years ago, your most important employee was your chief of staff. As a freshman member, you probably think that person still is. But you’ll learn quickly that your chief is—at best—your second-most-important hire.

Now that you have an office and a small staff, it’s time to get a committee assignment or two. The House of Representatives has four very important committees, and you need to be on at least one of them to be a “good” member of Congress. That means you have to beg your party’s leadership for a spot. Groveling shows leadership that you have the makings of a good member, and leadership won’t waste a cherished Big Four slot on a bad member.

These committees control the vast majority of money flowing into, through, around, and from the United States government. In order, you want to be on:

  1. Ways and Means: This committee writes the tax laws, so to be a great member of Congress, this is the place to be.
  2. Energy and Commerce: Being here will still allow you to be a good member, but it’s a little more complicated because you have to navigate a bunch of competing business interests.
  3. Financial Services: This will lump you in with almost a quarter of the House, but there’s still enough opportunity to be a good member.
  4. Appropriations: This used to be the best committee assignment, but in a feel-good moment, Congress banned earmarks, which has limited appropriations’ capacity to churn out great members.

Of course, you can choose not to be a good member and leadership will find you a place on the House Administration or Ethics Committee.

January 5 is the next big day on your calendar—you’re sworn into office. Now you get to work on legislation and policy. But before you get to step on the House floor for the first time as an elected representative, someone in your party’s leadership will pull you aside and ask bluntly, “What are you doing about March 31st? And what can we do to help you with March 31st?”

March 31, 2015 is the biggest day on your calendar as a new member. Start chanting it when you wake up. MARCH THIRTY-FIRST! MARCH THIRTY-FIRST! You need to use your new staff and leverage your plum committee assignment to help you make March 31 a success. Unfortunately, March 31 gets in the way of your campaign promises to fix Washington.

Your party’s leadership will tell you about the “good new members who get it.” If you “get it,” you’re laser-focused on March 31. If you want to know what a good member does, just stand outside the Cannon House Office Building and watch where they walk every afternoon: down the Hill to the restaurants and law offices for private meetings.

Well before March 31, you have to hire your most important staffer. That’s the employee who you will spend at least 12 hours a week in a cubicle, getting ready for March 31. It’s your fundraiser. Your fundraiser knows about March 31, and your fundraiser cares about nothing else but that day. Along the way, your fundraiser will have sway over your every decision, telling you how each move—important votes, meetings, policy positions, and travel—will affect your bottom line. Most important, your fundraiser dictates a lot of your schedule, “encouraging” you to spend as much time as possible raising money.

March 31 is the filing date for your first fundraising report with the Federal Election Commission as a sitting member of Congress. It’s your opportunity to flex your new political muscles, to show that you’ve used your important committee assignments to get political cash from the relevant companies, and to prove that you’re not afraid to travel to New York and California and Chicago and ask billionaires to cut you maxed-out campaign checks.

You’ll only have been in office for 90 days, but if you don’t have a healthy initial fundraising report—six-figures healthy—your party’s leadership will put you on death watch. A small campaign war chest shows weakness. It invites competition from the other party, since a challenger might realize you’re not using your new seat to its full financial advantage, and that they won’t have to work that hard to match your financial resources in the next campaign. Your party’s leadership will ask you why you're making your reelection difficult. Or maybe, they might think, you don’t want to be a good member of the caucus? Maybe leadership wasted one of the slots on Ways and Means for you?

Good members start fundraising immediately after coming to Washington. Check out the DCCC’s or NRCC’s calendar of events for the lame-duck session in November and December. Some great members hadn’t even been reelected yet in 2014, but they already scheduled fundraising events for the 2016 cycle. You may not know where the closest bathroom to your office is in the first few days as a member of Congress, but you better know about March 31. Everybody else will know if you have been naughty or nice on March 31.

So welcome to Congress in 2015! There’s never a break from fundraising. If you want to be the best member, maybe your first act should be to write a law that institutes a mandatory “time-out” from fundraising, a cooling-off period where members can’t raise money and are required to spend time legislating. All your colleagues, sick of raising money themselves, will love you.