A currency of trust

Federal executives can work more effectively with Congress. Here’s how.

Trust is the coin of the realm,” said the late Bryce Harlow, adviser to four presidents and a master at managing the relationship between Congress and the executive branch. Trust is the currency that Capitol Hill and federal agencies trade back and forth to get government work done. Once trust is lost, there’s nothing left on the table, Harlow said.

Dwight Ink, a retired federal executive who worked with Congress under seven presidents, counts Harlow as one of his mentors. “Without trust, it’s very difficult to have a constructive working relationship between the two branches,” Ink said.

Keeping strong bonds between feds and Congress can be as simple as returning phone calls to congressional staff members, said Jennifer Greer, chief of the future directions branch of the Army Corps of Engineers. Someone from the corps of engineers meets with congressional staff members almost every day, she said.

Ink cites his work with the former Atomic Energy Commission as an example of how to maintain trust with Congress. The commission wanted to find a location for a nuclear accelerator. The facility would attract jobs, engineers and scientists. “Every state except Hawaii offered a location for the accelerator,” Ink said. “We had to turn down all but two senators and most members of Congress.”

The potential for a breakdown of trust between Congress and the commission was huge, Ink said. He and his staff spent a lot of time explaining to the members of Congress why their states had good sites but weren’t right for the accelerator. By arming the lawmakers with information, it made them “appear to be involved and working for and representing their constituency,” he said. “That made a world of difference in our relationship with members of Congress.” The experience also helped Ink get to know most of the committee chairmen and ranking members.

The nuances of working with Congress can take a whole career to master, insiders say. People who regularly traverse the path between Capitol Hill and federal agencies most often describe the alliance between the two as a relationship that requires the same nurturing as any other close relationship.

Clearly, the congressional side gets the limelight and the attention. Congress is the popular kid in school who makes friends with the smart but introverted classmate — the feds — to get the smart kid to help with homework. But the relationship is symbiotic — the smart kid needs the popular one just as much. And the mutual dependence has spawned its share of fights, feuds and miscommunications.

Ideally, “the relationship with Congress is one of being a partner, not an adversary,” said Jay McNulty, chief of congressional and public affairs for the U.S. Marshals Service. “People get very nervous when Congress asks questions of them,” he said. And too often, “members of Congress say, ‘Look, we don’t see you unless you’re in deep water,’” McNulty said.

Don Wolfensberger, director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., agrees. “It’s important to get to know the committee staff well before you have to go before the committee to testify,” he said. “It’s better to start building these relationships when you’re not under fire.”

McNulty said “99 and nine-tenths percent of Congress wants to do the best they can. When they’re asking you for information, it’s not to play gotcha. It’s to answer a specific concern they have.”

For example, the Marshals Service administers the federal witness protection program, which has 8,000 witnesses and 11,000 family members. The program provides for the security, health and safety of government witnesses and their immediate dependents. Those are people whose lives are in danger because of their testimony against drug traffickers, terrorists, organized crime members and other criminals. No witness who follows the rules of the program has ever been harmed, McNulty said.

Two senators, Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and David Vitter (R-La.), approached the service about state and local governments providing protection for witnesses. The Marshals Service actively worked with them on this program. The senators were concerned about protecting people in their states who testified against gang members. By seeing Congress as a partner, not an adversary, the Marshals Service helped produce a constructive outcome.

The Marshals Service makes a point of keeping Congress informed, McNulty said. For example, the service coordinates a program called Operation Falcon III, a combined effort by state and local law enforcement to apprehend fugitives. Representatives of the Marshals Service meet frequently with individual members of Congress or in small groups to keep them informed about Falcon III activities in their districts.

Give and take
Bruce James, who recently retired as U.S. public printer and chief executive officer of the Government Printing Office, came into government from industry and was surprised to discover that GPO “could not move any faster than Congress.” A dynamic is set up in which agencies, and particularly agency heads, must bring Congress along with every major initiative, he said.

“The system works amazingly well when both sides are in sync,” James said. “This back-and-forth dialogue, which some people look at as an impediment to getting something done, I found actually increases the quality of what gets done.”

James probably is exceptional in his understanding of Congress. Most federal executives need a better understanding of how Congress works, said Kenneth Gold, director of the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. “That includes the process, the language and the purposes of congressional committee hearings.”

Too often, federal executives don’t know the difference between an authorization and an appropriation, said Carl Fillichio, vice president of innovation and public engagement at the Council for Excellence in Government. An authorization is policy guidance, the law that establishes a framework for a particular program. An appropriation is the allotment of funds for a project.

For example, a senior federal executive who has worked for the Labor Department for 20 years is used to having other people nearby — a congressional affairs officer or representative of another division — to take care of congressional issues. That changes when the executive becomes a deputy secretary and has to testify at a congressional hearing, Fillichio said.

Every federal executive who deals with Congress needs to work with the agency’s congressional affairs office, Gold said. Although it is known by different names — legislative liaison or congressional affairs — every agency has an office that coordinates all its contacts with Congress. And each agency has its rules for working with Congress, Gold said. Some strictly prohibit any employee who does not work in the agency’s congressional affairs office from communicating with members of Congress or congressional staff. Others require that their congressional liaison office know about any interactions with Congress.

Keep it short
The military services have the strictest rules regarding communications with the Hill, Gold said. “But they also tend to be the most sophisticated and effective in their relationships with Congress,” he said. For one reason, they have more resources than smaller agencies do. Their legislative affairs office has hundreds of employees. A small agency’s congressional liaison might have fewer than a dozen.

Keep communications with Congress clear and concise, Gold said. “In all cases, feds need to be able to present their information in a useful and usable format,” he said. “Written material should be one or two pages, no more.” 

That often means translating geekspeak into English. Although engineers are known for having trouble communicating to lay people, the Army Corps of Engineers has a number of employees who strip away the technical jargon and make the issues understandable for members of Congress, said Eugene Pawlik, a spokesman for the corps of engineers.

Federal executives should realize that communicating with Congress is not the same as lobbying them, Gold said. “Federal officials are prohibited by law from lobbying Congress,” he said. “Federal law prohibits certain kinds of activities, specifically grass-roots activities or the use of the media to advocate a policy or program. But providing information to Congress is not lobbying.”

With the new Congress in session, committees feature a new set of faces. “Every committee and subcommittee is going to have new members and chairs,” Gold said. “You’ll have to make a whole new set of relationships. And a lot of people you dealt with won’t be there any more. The general rules will stay the same, but the players will be different.”

The Army Corps of Engineers has developed a productive relationship with Congress over the years, but not because the lawmakers are pushovers, Greer said. “We say no a whole lot more than we say yes. But the relationship has much more to do with being responsive than with telling them what they want to hear.” An agency never wants to surprise Congress with good news or bad news, she said.

When something goes wrong, as it certainly will, don’t try to cover it up, most congressional liaison officials say. For example, the corps of engineers got a lot of negative local press about a particular dike in Florida, not long after Hurricane Katrina. The corps division commander made a trip to Capitol Hill and briefed every member on the situation and what the analysis showed, Greer said. “By making the trip, and holding those meetings personally, it showed that we were committed to communicating with them.”

And when problems arise, resist the temptation to lash out against personalities, Ink said. “Deal with both the majority and the minority,” he said. When Ink was working to promote a presidential initiative, he said he generally met with the committee chairman and ranking minority together and established a bipartisan communication at the outset.

Choosing sides is one of the biggest mistakes McNulty said he sees federal executives make in their dealings with Congress. “You can’t be partisan,” he said. People fail to realize that “at some point there’s going to be a turnover. The outs will be ins, and the ins will be outs.” McNulty tells his staff, “I don’t want to know what your politics are.”

Like the rest of the world, Capitol Hill has its share of bullies, Ink said. “It’s important not to be intimidated by them. If you have solid relationships with other members, it’s easier to withstand bullying.”

Ink said career civil servants should cooperate with their elected colleagues, but they also must be certain that they “are very firm in rejecting the first pressure by a member to hire someone” into their agency.

“It’s easy to turn down a congressman the first time,” Ink said. It can be done nicely, he added. But, he said, “once you go along with that pressure, it’s harder to say no down the line.”

Walsh is a senior writer for the 1105 Government Information Group.
Keep Congress in the loop, or risk the worstIt’s best to inform Congress at the first whiff of scandal. Dwight Ink, a retired federal executive, speaks from his experience when he offers that advice.

“If some allegations of abuse or scandal began to emerge, I found it very, very useful to immediately contact my key congressional committees and let them know what was going on and keep them advised as things went forward,” Ink said. “It was very important that the oversight people knew we weren’t going to cover up or hide anything. I would move as fast as I could to investigate the situation myself. I could move faster than [the Government Accountability Office] or the inspector general.”

Ink once got a call in the middle of the night about members of a group who had used funds from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to buy mink coats for their girlfriends and commit other improprieties. Ink alerted the House Government Operations Committee and GAO, which began preparing for an investigation.

Ink received a call from former Rep. John Blatnik (D-Minn.), who said Ink was doing so well on investigating the matter that “he’d wait and see what we came up with” before he investigated further. In situations like this, “I think it’s very important to notify Congress immediately, even if you don’t know the cause or haven’t investigated it yet,” Ink said. “Move in hours, not days or weeks, to dig into the problem.”
Tips on working more effectively with Congress
  1. Keep your congressional contacts informed of good and bad news. Lawmakers don’t like surprises, even pleasant ones.
  2. Be nimble and adjust to changes in Congress. At some point, the outs will be in, and the ins will be out.
  3. Keep the lines of communication open and active. Like any relationship, an agency’s connection to Congress has to be nurtured.
  4. Most members of Congress are not schooled in an agency’s specialized vocabulary, so keep your language simple and jargon-free.
  5. Members are besieged by hundreds of requests every day. If you’re going to occupy a member’s time, it better be about something important.
  6. Work with your congressional affairs office.
  7. Don’t act in a partisan manner. You have to work with members of both sides of the aisle.


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