The Real Rules of Congress: A Veteran Explains It All to Freshman Members

January 08, 1995|By PIERRE S. du PONT IV

Dear Freshman, Twenty-four years ago, my old blue Cutlass lTC carried me to Washington to join the Congress of the United States. Full of hope and optimism, I was confident in that January of 1971 that I knew the rules, the score and the game I was in. Alas, Pollyanna would have done better.

So that for you, good freshman, it will not be "deja vu all over again," I offer up the real rules, not to be found in orientation sessions, "Robert's Rules of Order" or Emily's List.

Remembering that in politics (as in life), all constants are variables, the following constant principles, if observed in the proper spirit, can provide prospective politicians with a manual for breaking in, breaking even and maybe even succeeding in the Washington environment.

Political maxims

Rule No. 1. Don't move to the center, make the center move to you. You came to Congress to lead, not to go along. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, paint your vision in such bold primary colors that no one can misunderstand your intentions. Remember, in football the center only snaps the ball. Plays to the right or left score the touchdowns.

Rule No. 2. Sometimes the best law of all is no law at all. Liberty allows individuals to choose; it doesn't promise that all the choices will be correct. Trying to correct problems legislatively can limit everyone's opportunities. Or, in Churchill's metaphor, the unequal sharing of blessings is better than the equal sharing of misery.

Rule No. 3. The titles of bills -- like those of Marx Brothers movies -- often have little to do with the substance of the legislation. Example: Was the Clinton crime bill about reducing crime or about increasing pork and social spending? Vote on the content, not the title, otherwise you'll be in "Duck Soup."

Rule No. 4. There is nothing temporary about temporary programs. Some have turned into multi-billion-dollar Cabinet departments. Most are located in West Virginia, and are for the Byrds.

Rule No. 5. Beware the lobbyist, my son, the jaws that bite, the claws that snatch (with apologies to Lewis Carroll). No matter how noble the cause or well-meaning its professional advocates, lobbyists are still paid to get results. They too are subject to errors in judgment and shortcomings in motives. Anyhow, they don't even vote in your district.

Rule No. 6. Political crusades -- like religious ones -- often result in death and destruction -- for everyone but the enemy. Hillary's health care crusade, for example. If you exhort the mob to do justice at the guillotine, your head may be the one to roll.

Rule No. 7. Never underestimate the ability of a supplicant to exaggerate: "Congressman, there will be a thousand people there to hear you speak. . . ." Never give up your football tickets for a chance to fly halfway across the country to speak for free to 25 people at a fire hall in South Dakota.

Rule No. 8. Special interests are by definition not the general interest, as in "We represent the wishes of the people." Each special-interest group with an ax to grind surely represents the views of its leaders, but usually not of all its members, let alone the rest of us. The views of the American Association of Retired Persons on nationalized health care come to mind.

Rule No. 9. Whatever you say today will look wrong in print tomorrow. Not because it is wrong, but because the press wants to sell papers and/or advance the editor's agenda. The cruel facts are that the television never blinks and uses but 9 seconds of your 40-minute talk and the newspaper prints corrections on Page 56. In politics, there are no instant replays. (Unless you have made an extraordinary blunder.)

Rule No. 10. If you are concerned about being criticized, you're in the wrong job. However you vote, and whatever you do, somebody out there telling you that you are (a) wrong, (b) insensitive, (c) a Reaganite, (d) a McGovernite, (e) too wishy-washy, (f) too unwilling to compromise, (g) all of the above -- consistency is not required of critics.

Other rules?

Perhaps these thoughts can best be summed up on one brief anecdote, recalled by NBC's John Chancellor. A veteran British diplomat had a favorite way to put down a pushy or egotistical junior. The diplomat would call the younger man in for a heart-to-heart talk and quite often at the end of the talk would say, "Young man, you have broken the Fifth Rule; you have taken yourself too seriously." That would end the meeting -- except that invariably, as the younger man got to the door, he would turn and ask, "What are the other rules?" And the old diplomat would smile serenely and answer, "There are no other rules."

Pierre S. du Pont IV, former governor of Delaware, is policy chairman of the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas.

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