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What's Wrong With Washington? We Ask Those Who Left It Behind

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WASHINGTON -- Americans view Congress more negatively now than at any point in our nation’s history.

Which raises the oft-asked question: what’s the matter with Washington?

We decided to ask those who were once in power and have left, figuring they might have some perspective. What have they come to realize matters most about the legislative branch? And what did the political world treat as important that, in retrospect, was trivial?

Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), served in Congress 1987 to 2007

On maintaining perspective:

You have these issues like you're drinking water out of a fire hose. They're just coming at you every day. There's a shooting some place, so you got gun control people that want something, or there's a factory killing horses so the PETA people are on you about something. It's almost like a whack-a-mole game, in a sense. You never really have time to take time and look over the horizon, and say, 'Where are we going, what are some of the big things we should be doing?' I tried to do that from time to time.

You need to step back sometimes, just to kind of evaluate. If you get so caught up in the hamster wheel that you can never get off and do that, then I think you're lacking. Sometimes you need to get off and say, 'What's the bigger perspective here?’

I would do it first thing in the morning: think through what we're doing. I always remember that on the day of the impeachment, Dec. 19, 1998, I got up in the morning and I was reflecting and I was thinking, 'We're going to take on impeachment of the president of the United States, and the last time somebody did that, it was Lincoln's vice president.' And it changed the power of the presidency for decades after that. So I was thinking, 'How will this affect the presidency?' Little did I know that I would walk out of the Capitol that night and basically be Speaker of the House. So sometimes you're just caught up in events, you know?

On the importance of relationships:

I thought that my best work was to bring people in and to try to make things work. So I was more of a back-room guy compared to what Newt [Gingrich] was. Newt was always out in the press. If I had any success at all, it was bringing people in, building trust relationships, and then trying to take those relationships and move things forward. That's just kind of old-fashioned hard work.

Sometimes I would say, 'Hey, we've got to start tying the loose strings together and get things done.' We would sit there: it was [Dick] Armey and [Tom] DeLay and John Boehner and I, Bill Paxton was in it at that time, Bob Walker. And we would sit at that leadership table for hours and hours and listen to Newt basically pontificate about this British battle in Europe or this French battle. Some string would come back and it was relevant, but we would listen to these lectures day in, day out. We didn't have a lot of choice.

Jon Favreau, former chief White House speechwriter for President Barack Obama, 2009 to 2013

On paying attention to the latest headlines:
It's fair to say at times I was probably too concerned -- despite my elders telling me differently -- with the day-to-day news cycle and what it meant and what the polls meant. When you step outside for a while you get more perspective … it really is about the long game. You do what is right and see where the chips fall.

We were always lucky that we had at the top of the totem pole David Plouffe. Plouffe is probably master of, ‘Don't focus on the bullshit every day. Focus on the long term.’ The man is insanely disciplined.

On why he doesn’t have a TV in his office:

It sort of just happened. We set up our office and didn't buy one. Now if someone asked if I wanted one, I'd probably say no, because I think 90 percent of what's on cable is mostly crap. I am one of the biggest critics of this. But I don't like to completely blame reporters and media organizations for this, because I think there is this appetite out there, it's like a sugar high for people.

On the biggest misconception about Washington:

The whole idea that everybody in Washington is motivated by power and selfish reasons and fame is totally less true than [the idea] that many people are motivated by fear of losing and public embarrassment and being wrong.

Sara Fagen, former White House political director under President George W. Bush, 2005 to 2007

Advice for those still in the game:

The best advice I could give people is to let the campaign end in November, the day after the election. That's the biggest challenge for people in both parties. People spend too much time on the politics and not enough on the governing.

I do think the advent of cable news and the 24-hour news cycle has caused people to be hyper-focused, speed-driven, attention to facts and details and putting things out. If you just add your name to any press secretary distribution's list, half the stuff they put out is just complete garbage. It's less a statement about the quality of the work and more about the fact that they feel like they have to feed the beast.

I think this starts at the top. Elected officials set the tone for how the organization conducts itself. It's incumbent on the parties to recruit people who can win elections and people who will be class-A team players. But it's become a vicious cycle. A negative and nasty environment sends the wrong message to highly qualified individuals who might think about public service. There are folks in both parties who are attracted to this lifestyle but maybe not the best person for the job. That's not to say there's not some really awesome public servants who do great work at all levels. But I think both parties look at the short-term opportunities and think about picking up seats. It's understandable. But a little long-term thinking and foresight would be good for everyone.

Former Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.), served in Congress 1997 to 2011

On whether it's possible to serve in Congress as the parent of young kids:

Several years ago while still in Congress, I had a morning House gym conversation with a member, also a father with young children, who formerly was in the NFL. He said that everyone thinks the NFL is a bunch of rowdy young men still acting like a bunch of college kids, but the reality for him was that the NFL had a much more family friendly approach to scheduling -- i.e., figuring out the best way to be supportive of players and families with children -- than the House of Representatives. The three workload demands of the Congress -- work in Washington, work in the district, and the political work of a campaign -- are so great that not much time is available for families, particularly for those some distance away.

I don’t know what the answer is. For me, it was not running for re-election. But if we as a nation don’t pay some attention to the Congress being supportive of members with children still at home, we will have a representative government not particularly representative of younger families, even though we all talk about our support for the American family. Maybe it is all better now: Rep. [Cathy] McMorris-Rodgers is moving her kids to D.C., which is a good solution for some if your constituents think it is OK. On the other hand, my congressman, Tim Griffin, did not run for re-election for young kid considerations.

Former Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.), 1997 to 2003, also served in the House of Representatives, 1993 to 1997

Advice for those still in the game:

One thing that I see now as important and enduring is the friendships. I don’t think I valued that while was in the Senate like I do now. The friendships endure, and I wish I had tried to cultivate them more on both sides of the aisle.

Then I think I would advise members of Congress to realize that the country faces very big issues and the solutions require members to rise above narrow partisan considerations which tend to dominate the culture of Washington.

And lastly, I would advise members to have an identity and life beyond the institution. Too many hang on too long because they cannot imagine life beyond the corridors of power. The temptation is to equate your identity with the position, which is very sad.

That’s all. I would probably have more advice to the media.

Former Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio), served in Congress 1995 to 2013

On technology:

When I started 20 years ago, people didn't have the ability to get a hold of you 24/7, and they do now. So it's not unusual to be ending your days laying in bed responding to emails or drafting something. [When I started] it wasn't quite papyrus and a pencil. I can remember in 1994 when I checked into the Hyatt for my orientation, they gave me a laptop and I'd never seen one before. We had very rudimentary computers -- it was basically a glorified word processing system.

What technology does is make the legislative process much more reactionary. Let's say you went down and had a conference on a tax bill -- a meeting of the Republican conference or Democratic caucus -- and there would be some discussion, and you'd actually have the opportunity to maybe have a day or two to sort it out and think about it before you settled on a position. Well, now it's tweeted out in the room and is in the blogosphere within a matter of minutes, if not seconds, and so those that are for it are immediately lighting up their email tree, those that are against it are doing the same thing.

The best example I can give you is during the fiscal cliff. Boehner rolls out Plan B in terms of what Bush tax cuts were going to be extended after 2013. And while we were in the meeting, members were receiving vote alerts from Club for Growth and Heritage Action and FreedomWorks basically saying, if you vote for Plan B, we're gonna score it and get someone to run against you in the primary. And then 48 Republicans said we're not going to be supportive, and that's what happened to Plan B.

It also sharpens the divide. I don't know how you can be a thoughtful legislator in 140 characters or less. It just doesn't lend itself to that. And so you really don't have a 24-hour news cycle to digest what's going on and figure out what you're going to do, who do you need to get to be supportive, are you going to talk to Democrats about it? Because the die's cast before you can even have that conversation with yourself.

I don't think you're ever going to get a comprehensive anything ever again in the Congress. Immigration reform, six-year transportation bill, a whole host of things just aren't going to happen because people are really pried away from policy. What you get is either a Republican proposal or a Democratic proposal and God forbid you should try to thread the needle and try to find the differences between the two.

Advice for those still in the game:

People have to stop being so nervous. Retiring or losing an election isn't the end of the world. Just because you get 500 tweets or emails, that doesn't mean 51 percent of the people back in your district are espousing that position. So take the time to figure out where the folks you represent really are, not just the loudest. Be deliberate, and try to take time to be thoughtful and produce meaningful legislation.

Jim Manley, former communications director for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), 2004 to 2010, and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), 1993 to 2003

On how the pace affects the work being done:

It is incumbent on any chief of staff or senior person in office to make sure that their member gets plenty of time to think and digest things, and reflect on the day's or week's activities. If not, you're just running from event to event, issue to issue, and not really spending the time you need to think about what you're doing and how you want to get there.

The same thing goes for staff. As press person, you've got to be careful that you're not just responding to everything in sight, whether on Twitter or whatever, and that you're taking the time to take a step back and think strategically about where you're going and what you're trying to do. That's where you make mistakes -- if you just start blasting out Twitter shots left and right, at some point you're going to make a mistake. Somebody, somewhere, has got to take the time to try and slow down the process.

Advice for those still in the game:

Take a step back every once in a while. Don't get wrapped up in the 24/7 media environment. Take a look around to appreciate where you are. If you're a staffer who doesn't get a chance to go over to the Senate floor, go over there every once in a while to see what actually is going on around you. Fight like hell during the day, and at some point, take a step back and realize tomorrow's another day.

Former Rep. Mike Ferguson (R-N.J.), served in Congress 2001 to 2009

On having young children in Congress:

My first term we kind of went back and forth, and my family had been based in New Jersey. But after my first term, our oldest child had to go into kindergarten and we had to make a decision. Were we going to keep our family based in New Jersey or bring them to the Washington area? We made a decision to put our kids in school in the Washington area … [but] at some cost.

You pay a political price for not having your kids in school in your home district, you certainly pay a financial price because you're maintaining two residences on the congressional salary. But it was the absolute best thing for our family. It allowed me to be a better husband and father.

On what he tells incoming lawmakers:

Be humble. There's always a tendency or a temptation, when you're in a position of authority, to think that it's perhaps more important than it is. Something that was very helpful for me to think about was these institutions have been around for a long time. There are lots of folks who came before me who did a great job, and there are lots of folks who will come after me and do a great job. Frankly, it makes it easier to keep your priorities straight if you have that sense of humility of the political institution and the office you hold. It helps you to be happier when circumstances may change.

Former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), served in Congress 1995 to 2008

On building relationships:

A couple things have changed. One is they have these new ethics rules. We used to have bipartisan retreats where Republicans and Democrats could all go together and take a weekend with their families and address problems, but because of the rules those ended. Those were very, very useful tools to sit down with other members and understand them, understand where the other guy is coming from, and what issues their district faces.

The gifts ban has really hurt indirectly. You used to go out with members and sit at a ballgame. If you socialize with them and do trips with them, it's harder to demonize them. You don't have that comradeship you used to have.

Advice for those still in the game:

It's harder but it's still really important to reach out. Go sit on the other side ... it works in small ways. Get to know who you're working with on both sides, not just on your committee. And you've got to stay around town. If you want to legislate, you've got to stay around town talking about legislation and talking about big ideas, what you expect to accomplish.

Former Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), served in Congress 1995 to 2009

On technology:

When I got elected in '94, we were still using fax machines. There was no such thing as email. Smartphones didn't exist. And then we had intra-office email, and then we had the ability through a dedicated line to send emails to the district office in Florida and vice-versa, and then it was email to everybody in the world. We had no smartphones and then we had slightly smart phones and then smarter smartphones. It was really breathtaking, the speed at which information began to travel around. It was dizzying. I think it did play a role in making things even busier.

Looking back on what was important and what wasn't:

I tried to be really careful with my time. One of the things that amazed me about the job was the amount of time I spent on my schedule. I'm practicing medicine now and I've got some teaching I do at my college. I spend 45 minutes a week maybe juggling my schedule. But when I was in Congress, it was a constant thing. I spent hours a week trying to figure out what I was going to do on every given day, because there were all these multiple choices. When the House was in session there were probably, for any given evening, six different things that I could go to. I probably went to too many. I should have slowed down a little more and played the guitar a little more.

Advice for those still in the game:

Don't sacrifice your marriage, don't sacrifice your kids, don't sacrifice your health. Get your exercise. And be true to yourself. Don't try to be what you're not. The job's not worth it.

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