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The 5 habits of highly effective legislators

- January 6, 2015

(Susan Walsh/AP)
As the 114th Congress convenes this week, it will confront pressing issues like immigration reform, national security, and numerous economic and social policies with long-term consequences for the country’s welfare. Making any progress on these issues will require the seemingly unthinkable: agreement between a Republican Congress and President Obama.
The public, for its part, seems skeptical that Congress can or will do much of anything.  In people’s  view, Congress is ill-equipped to handle the nation’s challenges and unable to engage in effective lawmaking.
However, reports of the death of congressional lawmaking have been greatly exaggerated. Lawmaking in Congress is certainly affected by the divided government and political polarization that appear to be driving gridlock today.  But we’ve seen contentious politics before. What matters for overcoming political divides and reaching new compromises is whether members of Congress resist the temptation to merely score political points and instead play their more important role as lawmakers.
In our recent book, “Legislative Effectiveness in the United States Congress: The Lawmakers,” we study lawmaking in the House of Representatives over the last 40 years and score the effectiveness of every member. These Legislative Effectiveness Scores are based on how far representatives’ proposals move through the lawmaking process and on the importance of those proposals. These scores shed new light on the workings of Congress.
The highly effective lawmakers in one Congress tend to be the ones who bring about major policy changes in the next. And tracking their lawmaking habits offers a recipe for success in the future. Although these may sound intuitive, it is surprising how many members of Congress neglect them, and amazing just how useful these habits are for those who embrace them.
Habit 1: Develop a legislative agenda rooted in personal background, previous experiences and policy expertise.
Habit 2: Develop a legislative agenda tightly focused on district needs.
Habits 1 and 2 point to the virtues of specialization and perseverance. With any proposed bill having less than a 4 percent chance of becoming law, members must be determined to overcome such steep odds. Consider Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), who escaped Nazi forced-labor camps and dedicated his congressional career to fighting human rights abuses worldwide. Or Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who focused like a laser on the needs of his constituents. Both were motivated to use the privilege of office-holding for a higher purpose.
Habit 3: Be entrepreneurial with positions of institutional power.
Habit 3 points to the use of committee and leadership positions to advance policymaking agendas, such as when Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) repeatedly reformed health policies as a key subcommittee chairman.
Habit 4: Be open to compromise, even with those who are not natural allies.
Habit 5: Cultivate a broad set of allies, even beyond the House.
Habits 4 and 5 point to compromise, and are found among lawmakers all across the political spectrum. Despite opposing underlying ideologies, effective lawmakers know that nothing in Congress can be accomplished alone, without building coalitions across the ideological divide, across parties, and across branches of government. For example, with Democrats regaining control of the Senate (along with the House) during President Reagan’s final two years, Rep. Hamilton Fish (R-N.Y.) needed to bridge the ideological divide between Reagan and Sen. Edward M.  Kennedy. By making sure both sides won on the issues they cared the most about, Fish helped secure passage of the Fair Housing Act Amendments of 1988, and later played a key role in the Americans with Disabilities Act.
As the 61 newly elected freshman in the House and 13 new senators enter Congress this week, they face a choice. They can keep up the partisan rhetoric and bomb-throwing that has made Congress so reviled. Or they can figure out how to be effective lawmakers and make their institution effective as a result.
None of them campaigned on maintaining the status quo, on business as usual. And the above habits, if internalized and cultivated, offer them a recipe for success. Moreover, new members can rely on the role models of highly effective lawmakers who are returning with them to Congress.
In last fall’s elections we tracked the top performers of each party according to our scores in the 112th Congress. (You can track all legislators here.)  Each and every one of those highly effective members on the ballot won their general election battle. So while the above habits are not necessarily the easy road, they represent not only good policy but also good electoral politics.