Memo to New Members of Congress: Check Your Ego at the Door | Opinion

Last month, a group of wide-eyed freshmen lawmakers arrived in our nation's capital, eager to make an impression and change the world. Though they must have expected to be confronted with the polarization that grips Congress, they might not have anticipated just how explosive those divisions would become.

The Herculean challenges of the raging COVID-19 pandemic, the teetering economic recovery, and the soaring mistrust in our institutions are difficult situations to navigate, especially if you're new to Congress. But lawmakers must transcend these challenges if we are to remain a functioning democratic republic.

With this in mind, we—two former House members who collectively served nearly three decades in Congress—would like to offer some modest words of advice about how to build personal relationships, legislate effectively, and stay connected to your constituents. In the wake of the January 6 attack on the Capitol, these abilities are more important than ever.

Get to know your peers—from both parties. Congress is bigger than you think. At 535 members, it's larger than 99.7% of American companies. Imagine how difficult it would be for a 500-person firm to function if nobody trusted or respected each other. All work would come to a screeching halt, and that company would fail within weeks.

Unfortunately, hostility has become the norm in Congress. For too long, our elected officials have viewed members of the other party as enemies who must be defeated, instead of colleagues who are essential to their own success. Yet cooperation is the only way you can deliver for your constituents.

The most successful members are those who seek out every possible opportunity to get to know colleagues from both parties. You won't hit it off with everyone, but we guarantee you will find friends and collaborators in unlikely places. Small gestures that build bonds of trust go a long way.

Make this place work. Congress' approval rating is dismal, and for years, railing against the institution has been a tried-and-true campaign strategy. But you are now a member of one of the most distinguished representative legislative bodies in history. You shouldn't ask what is wrong with America without also asking what is right.

For lawmakers, there must be a transition from tearing down our institutions when campaigning to renewing our great traditions when governing. After you took your oath of office, you became responsible for both a more perfect union and a more functional Congress.

Pick an issue that matters to you—then learn everything there is to know. On Capitol Hill, it can feel like you are being pulled in a million directions. Too often, members of Congress end up with knowledge that's a mile wide and an inch deep.

To thrive, identify an issue that you and your district really care about. Then identify mentors, seek out expertise, and become an authority.

Freshman members of the 116th Congress
Freshman members of the 116th Congress pose for a group photo on Capitol Hill November 14, 2018 in Washington, DC. Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images

In Washington, information is power. Becoming a policy expert is how you make yourself indispensable, build influence, and develop strong working relationships with other members. The sooner you build expertise and policy chops, the more effective you'll be.

Check your ego at the door. Believe us: It's tempting to come into your first term guns blazing. Naturally, you are eager to prove yourself, become a leader, and feel like you're driving change. But Congress is full of Type A personalities, and it likely has the one of the highest concentrations of Eagle Scouts, high school debate champions, and student body presidents of any organization in the nation. You aren't always going to be the smartest person in the room.

Many times, the members who make the most noise have the least credibility. Meanwhile, those who are willing to dig into details and develop policy specialties get opportunities for promotion. Congress functions best when it's a place for deliberation, the respectful exchange of ideas, and listening to others.

Finally, remember who sent you to Congress. Washington is full of distractions, false choices, and temptations. Special interests will try to seduce you with the promise of contributions and power. And leadership will pressure you to always put party unity over principles. However, when your constituents sent you to Congress, they were looking to you to represent them, not party leaders or special interests.

Don't ever forget where you come from and who elected you.

In calmer times, these suggestions are best practices. In this era of crisis, they're indispensable. Please follow them. It's the only way we'll endure.

Tim Roemer is a former Democratic Congressman from Indiana, and Zach Wamp is a former Republican Congressman from Tennessee. They currently serve as co-chairs of Issue One's Reformers Caucus, the largest bipartisan group of former members of Congress, governors, and Cabinet secretaries ever assembled to advocate for political reform.

The views expressed in this article are the authors' own.