House Veterans Tell Newcomers to ‘Sweat the Small Stuff’

November 10, 2010 - 7:22 AM

Washington (AP) - Be work horses, not show horses. Choose details over drama. The small stuff? Sweat it. And do it fast.

Republicans retaking control of the House in January are getting lessons from veterans of the past two transitions of power on Capitol Hill -- 1994, when the GOP last took control of Congress, and 2006, when Democrats grabbed it back.

Lesson No. 1: They have a short window to convince the public they're serious about changing the way Washington works.

"If we look like we're doing business as usual," says Rep.-elect Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., "then obviously the American people will say, 'Well, what was that all about?'"

"It's about making measurable progress in reasonable time," said Rep.-elect Tim Scott, R-S.C.

A 22-member Republican team is deliberating this week on how the new GOP majority will turn the populist cry to change Washington into operational policy on everything from rules to fiscal matters.

Lesson No. 2: Details, even private ones, matter.

"Sweat the small stuff," retired House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, R-Iowa, told the team, which includes four incoming freshmen. The minutiae of budget-drafting and the morass of billions and trillions of dollars at issue can get lost on constituents, he said.

"But bouncing checks at the House bank? That connects," Nussle said, referring to various scandals that have shaken Democrats and Republicans alike. "Having an improper relationship with a page? That connects. Having a rent-controlled office? That connects."

So do suppressing vendettas and establishing some good will -- an exceedingly rare commodity on Capitol Hill in recent years, said another transition veteran.

Rules, for example, that allow for amendments and debate. Or a committee chairman sharing staff and office space with the minority.

Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., who served as Speaker Nancy Pelosi's transition chief in 2006, said a few members back then came to him suggesting that since the Republicans "did this, this and this to us, we should do that, that and that to them."

Take the long view, Capuano says he advised Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., the GOP's transition chairman.

"You start out on as high a plane as you can find," Capuano said. "Because once the battle begins, it becomes tougher."

To hear some tell it, the moment Election Day was over the political battles pivoted from the 2010 midterms to the 2012 presidential cycle. Flush with victory in the House and a gain of seats in the Senate, some in the GOP immediately declared that their party's congressional mission was now to deny President Barack Obama a second term.

By the end of the week Pelosi had stunned Washington by announcing she would continue to lead Democrats even in the minority because she had no intention of allowing Republicans to repeal the health care overhaul and other laws enacted during Democratic rule.

So much for good will.

In Republican circles, the populist cry to change the way Washington works spilled past Election Day. The man likely to be the next House speaker, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, appointed veteran lawmakers to the transition team, such as Rep. David Dreier of California, who had served in both the House majority and minority, and four members of the freshman class who rode into office in part by campaigning against that very same establishment.

Not included in Transition 101 was what to do about the complex issues presented by the fact that, populist outcry notwithstanding, Congress will continue to be led by the same veteran lawmakers who ran the House in the last session -- and served for decades before that. How, for example, to quietly induct the uncompromising class of 80 freshman lawmakers into the dealmaking culture of Congress?

And that's all before they get to hashing out policy.

"There's definitely going to be a honeymoon period, where a new majority will feel a certain camaraderie," said lobbyist Rich Meade, who was one of Nussle's aides during the 1994 transition. "How long the honeymoon lasts is another question."

The gold ring at this stage is trying to establish a fair process for legislation -- and therefore, good will, Nussle said.

He told the team about his first day as budget committee chairman. A Democrat passed him a note: "Smile. You've got the votes. You're going to win."

"His point was, Look, you're going to win. In the meantime, though, be fair," Nussle said in a phone interview. His message to the majority-to-be: "You're probably going to win most of the votes, so you don't have to win every argument."

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Associated Press writer Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this report.