Bloggers: Get Thee to Congressional Staffs!

12/09/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

So the bloggers won. Or at the very least get a lot of credit for creating an audible echo chamber on behalf of Barack Obama and progressive ideas. But the Senator's victory is a turning point for everyone who has been loudly denouncing the decisions made by our elected leaders. We don't need to reinvent the wheel anymore. We need to get it rolling. As Gara LaMarche and others have pointed out here on Huff Post, a key to Obama's success as president will be how the administration remains meaningfully engaged with its nation-wide network of campaign activists. This transition website is a good first step. And a friend told me tonight that the site has already attracted upward of 60,000 resumes...But the administration isn't going to be able to make long lasting change without its partner branch of government: the US Congress. And that's where the populist nature of the blogging Left can play a vital role. But In order to actually have impact, we're going to have to shed the leftover anger, the residual cynicism and the schadenfreude of "gotcha" reporting. And the prize is worth it: In its place is the possibility for real power and influence.

So here's my pitch: You twenty-somethings who are reading this, if you can't take your day job after being part of such a political earthquake like last week's election, go find your local Member of Congress and apply for a job. Take the district job over one on Capitol Hill. Even though DC is as giddy as that prisoner in Plato's Allegory of the Cave--you know, where he is chained immobile to a wall for years--and then gets taken out to see the sun--the states are still where the most important action is going to be found because influential citizen input is a missing link for many issues on Capitol Hill. Then, when you write your letter to the Chief of Staff or mobilize your contacts, bill yourself as a "New Media" or "Citizen Participation" Specialist. The great thing about being part of a new movement is that you get to make up your own job title. You will know more about how this election was electronically organized than anyone working in the office (but don't brag about it). In fact, apply for the job advertised, and sell your qualities for fulling those requirements, but come with a creative plan about how you are going to keep the citizens of the district involved and inspired. There are many resources available today that make national priorities relative to local concerns. Here are three that I use: the state report cards of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the bioterrorism defense report card from Trust for America's Health, or GreenReportCard. In fact, if you need a place to start, just google your issue together with "report card" and you'll get some good stuff. Don't forget the insanely useful Sunlight Foundation.

I worked for years on Capitol Hill--my area of expertise is peace and security. I helped Members and staff on both sides of the aisle. But my biggest frustration was how the issues we cared about didn't stand a chance against the agenda items that had a well-fed stable of lobbyists behind them. I ate lunch recently with a friend who is still on the Hill and he told me how Congress--with its vintage 1946 system of referring issues--was crushed by information overload. That staff had reached their human capacity to deal with the incoming data and demands and so were defaulting more and more back to anthropology 101: Other people. Hence the success of lobbyists who get paid a great amount to cultivate those personal networks. Anyone who has worked on the Hill will tell you that the three most important elements of influence are relationships, timing and solid knowledge communicated simply.

The inability to be successful on my side of the issues became evident in 2003 when the Army's Peacekeeping Institute was nearly eliminated. I thought, for Heaven's sake, if the Army can't represent itself, who can? Despite the vital lessons that our military had archived from its missions in the 1990's--the Institute wasn't shilling an expensive trinket for someone's district. It needed political commitment and staffing and support for the United Nations (the response from Congress on these issues went something like this...zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz) But I was finally pushed off the Hill into domestic politics after the Iraq War. Having been working in Congress when the war was declared, it seemed that one of the most effective coalitions for stopping the runaway President might have been progressives and retired military--yet there were so few relationships to mobilize that the opportunity escaped. And this was a constituency that should have existed in districts across the United States. It now does thanks to groups like National Security Network and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Back to the inspired twenty somethings: What I'm saying here is that, at the end of the day, being on the ground in the institutions that make the decisions is vitally important. Because then you are the one that the front desk intern will turn to with a bewildered "what's a FISA?" If there is anything that the Left should have learned from the last 12 years it is that we've been fighting a professional Army with a pickup team. Before its self-destruction last week, two cliches that the conservative movement lived by were "Nature abhors a vacuum" and "Half of winning is just showing up". So conservative leaders proceeded to destroy public infrastructure--thereby creating a vacuum--and then outsourced its replacement to their friends and allies. A great example of this occurred with the "reforms" implemented by 1995's Contract with America--the de facto elimination of much of the cooperative informal infrastructure like staffed caucuses--that helped Members stay educated and also built alliances between Democrats and Republicans on issues of interest (like arms control or the environment). Congressional staff from the old days refer to that year as "the lobotomy of Congress". Gingrich had no need for these informal venues ... he consolidated formal power of recognition to himself and simply outsourced substantive policy needs to conservative think tanks. So one of the major human abilities in Congress--convening--was devastated.

Replacing the old system isn't the answer here. We've no urgent requirement for bricks and mortar anymore. But we do need to restore the institutional memory of our government. Congress is a mining camp for people with community organizing ideas and electronic savvy. And these two things must go together. You can't have analysis without synthesis. You can't have notifications without opportunities for real participation. The politics of mass mobilization have changed dramatically, yet our legislature is stuck in the 40's. Process is respected and old traditions reign. Congress will only be renewed by people who have a healthy respect for all of these elements. Relationships and feeling like a stakeholder are the fiber of democratic institutions. No electronic superhighway will ever replace that.

Our challenge going forward today is to be hyper conscious to avoid the same old traps on the Left. We must not substitute tactics for strategy (chaining yourself to a nuclear plant to protest global warming) nor strategy for tactics (sending a copy of your PHD dissertation to Congress and expecting legislation to result) That doesn't work anymore, if it ever has. So ask your parents, ask their friends, find a connection to your new (or old) Member of Congress and practice your pitch!

p.s. the Army's Peacekeeping Institute was saved, renamed the Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute, and is now thriving.