25 Secrets Your Congressperson Won’t Tell You

From campaign contributions to the secrets behind lobbyists, we got the dirt on what Washington insiders don't talk about.

By Michelle Crouch from Reader's Digest Magazine | September 2012
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    “When I was first elected to the Iowa Senate, I believed if I was right on principle, all I had to do was make a principled argument, and I’d sway people to my side.”

    I tell people about that belief today, and they laugh at me.

    Rep. Steve King (R-IA)

    “If you can see it on C-SPAN, it’s probably not real.”

    Most decision making takes place off camera. On TV, we’re really role-playing, not debating. We haven’t had a real debate in a very long time.

    Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN)

    "In many cases, lobbyists write the bills.”

    When you have a high-profile issue like a health-care bill, there are five or ten lobbyists per congressperson, and they have a tremendous amount of influence.

    Former representative Alan Grayson (D-FL), who served from 2009 to 2011

    “Here’s an observation: The women in Congress are more bipartisan than the men."

    The men in Congress have this baseball game they play for charity ... Republicans against Democrats. When women started a softball game for the same purpose, we decided to play together, with the media as our opponent.

    Former representative Kathy Dahlkemper (D-PA), who served from 2009 to 2011

    “Most of the staffers on the Hill are in their early- or mid-20s."

    It might mortify the American public, but those are really the people running the country.

    Amy Ellsworth, a former congressional aide

    “Want a sense of how engaged and effective your member of Congress is?"

    Go to thomas.loc.gov to see how many bills he or she has introduced and how many got passed. There are members in there who’ve gotten no bills passed for a decade.

    Former representative Alan Grayson

    "As soon as you get to Washington, whether you’re a new Republican or a new Democrat, your party pulls you off into a retreat and brainwashes you."

    They say the No. 1 thing you can do is to defeat the other team. Everything they tell you is through a political prism: "What can we do to win?"

    A former congressman from the Southeast who served more than ten years

    “When you vote, you’re often choosing a congressperson for life."

    Maybe it’s not what you intend, but the districts are so gerrymandered, that’s essentially what you’re doing. Most members of Congress leave only when they retire, they die, or they run for higher office.

    Former representative Alan Grayson

    “I had [lobbying] groups physically tear up checks in front of my eyes."

    They didn’t like how I was going to vote.

    Former representative Brian Baird (D-WA), who served from 1999 to 2011

    “Your calls and e-mails do matter, probably more than you think."

    We have a system to track every call and e-mail and how many people are for or against something. Before they go to the floor to vote, members ask for those numbers.

    A former senior congressional aide for two GOP House members

    “One thing that surprised me was how much walking is involved."

    If I have a vote, it’s a quarter mile over to the floor and a quarter mile back. When I’m invited to meetings hosted by senators, it’s three quarters of a mile there and three quarters of a mile back. For the first few weeks, my feet were absolutely killing me. Then I noticed everyone was wearing Rockports or other soft-soled shoes, not dress shoes. That’s what you have to wear.

    Rep. John Carney (D-DE)

    “Like a lot of congresspeople, I sleep in my office."

    I'm either on the floor on a blow-up mattress or my couch. I cook in a little place across the hall that’s for storage, and I’ve got a deep-dish electric skillet, a Crock-Pot, a blender, a fridge, and a microwave. I do the dishes in the bathroom sink.

    Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ)

    “We get invited to a lot of receptions sponsored by lobbyists, but ethics rules say that you can’t sit down and you can’t have a fork."

    So the caterers set up standing tables and serve every food you can think of that you can stick with a toothpick.

    Former representative Bob Inglis (R-SC), who served from 1993 to 1999 and again from 2005 to 2011

    "It’s against ethics regulations to make fund-raising calls from a congressional office."

    Members go to some office off the Hill and sit there for hours calling potential contributors. It’s time when they could be in committee hearings or taking part in debates or writing their own legislation. They may not be on federal property, but we’re still paying them to do this.

    Mike Lofgren, GOP congressional staffer for 28 years and author of The Party Is Over

    “It’s a constant juggling act with your family."

    My daughter addressed a school assembly not long ago. I wanted to be there because she worked really hard on the speech, but we had a vote that went late, and I missed it. She has had to sit through God-knows-how-many of my speeches, so that one really hit home.

    Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT)

    "The first time you go into the Cabinet room for a meeting with the president, it's extremely exhilarating."

    Regardless of your party, regardless of your ideology or how much you agree with him on policy, being with the president of the United States—the leader of the free world—it just doesn't get any better than that.

    Former representative Zach Wamp (R-TN), who served from 1995 to 2011.

    "I spend exactly a third of my time in Washington, a third of my time in Iowa, and a third of my time traveling."

    How do I know that? At one point, I bought three packages of deodorant: one for D.C., one for Iowa, and one for my traveling kit. They all ran out the same week.

    Rep. Steve King

    “It used to be that members of Congress would buy a place in Washington when they got elected."

    Now they all get on a plane and head to their districts. That’s part of the reason there’s more partisanship.

    Former representative Marty Meehan (D-MA), who served from 1993 to 2007 and is now chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Lowell

    “We’re supposed to be a representative democracy—but our Congress is not very representative."

    The average age in the House is 57; the average age in the Senate is even higher, and it’s mostly wealthy white men. There’s no one under 30, yet almost all the people giving blood for our freedoms are under 30.

    Former representative Zach Wamp

    “Never, ever indicate that you are disappointed to be meeting with a staff person."

    People get fixated on meeting with a member of Congress, but even if you do, it’s going to be a grip-and-grin. Having a good relationship with a staff person can make or break your cause.

    Stephanie Vance, former Capitol Hill chief of staff and author of  The Influence Game: 50 Insider Tactics from the Washington, D.C., Lobbying World That Will Get You to Yes

    “The best place to talk to a congressperson is back in his or her district or state."

    In D.C., your staff can say you’re in a committee meeting or on the floor voting. And when you do meet with someone, you can rush off, saying you have pressing business. That’s not as easy to do back home.

    Former representative Bob Edgar (D-PA), president and CEO of Common Cause, a government watchdog group

    “If you’re a prolific fund-raiser who brings millions of dollars to your party, you get elevated to a leadership position."

    It happens even if you’re not an effective legislator and have no leadership skills. And boy, does that dumb down the process.

    A former congressman from the Southeast who served more than ten years

    “The fact is, on both sides of the aisle, most of the people [in Congress] are decent and incredibly hardworking."

    They do their very best for their constituents.

    Former representative Brian Baird

    “The opportunities to make a difference in an instant are rare, but they do happen."

    We heard from a Central American couple who had natural-born children. The mother was a legal resident studying to get her citizenship; the husband was in the country on asylum, working at a beef-packing plant. But he had missed a hearing and was up for deportation. If they deport him, the family loses their breadwinner, their health insurance, the children have no father... It was a pretty long battle, but I finally got him another hearing. Afterward, the whole family came to thank me. I still carry a little handmade cowboy boot he presented to me.

    Rep. Steve King

    “There’s always a way you can serve people as a congressperson."

    You don’t have to do it through a bill. You can do it by helping a 101-year-old woman evicted from a home find a place to live. That’s what’s really cool about this job.”

    Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-MI)


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    Your Comments

    • Cmanner

      And what did you do about it, Alan? Nothing? You are a real patriot.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bob-Conti/1326314961 Bob Conti

      #1,   They’re laughing at you , but not because of your comment. 

    • Anonymous

      “Most of the People in Congress are Decent or Hardworking” ?!? 
      Explain the Iraq War.   Explain the months-long debate about Janet Jackson’s breasts.   Explain the War on Drugs.    The lowest common denominator of Congress, is neither good, nor intelligent.   They may be hardworking.

      • Anonymous

        I am afraid most members of congress are self-serving and thoughtless. They are more concerned with lobbyists and money than the country. If they were honorable, they would (and should have to) forgo their pensions and lifetime healthcare and live under social security and medicare like the rest of America.Maybe things would get fixed if they did.

    • Nyjnt1

      “Your calls and e-mails do matter, probably more than you think.” That only refers to representatives who listen to both sides.  Some, like my representative, Nan Hayworth NY-18, have taking to deleting any comments that disagree with her positions and banning constituents from her social media pages.  So much for freedom of speech.

    • Guest

      The System DOESN’T Work! 

    • RemaininginMichigan

      I love slide 11 with John Carney. News for you Sir, walking and standing all day is normal for most working people who are not in positions like yourself. Suck it up and shut up. Your party and the republican party have spent too much of my money to give a crap about your sore feet. Also, I stand without sitting for 9 hours a day at work, and I still find the time to run 3-5 miles a day. I am not an olympian but I still find a way to take care of my own health. It is what responsible Americans do.

    • MB

      This article was very male chauvinistic and racist.  Shame on RD for only having two women and no people of color in the article.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/Q6QNJLR4MIMV37UNMM4ZVSN6SE hippiekarl

      The article’s author actually wants to measure a Congressperson’s value and effectiveness by the amount of legislation they have introduced! That’s the perspective that leads reps to feel as though they’d better ‘look busy’. I far prefer the efforts of congresspersons who *block* the most new laws instead! THEY are the ones looking out for their constituents’ best interests. Shame on the authors subtle implication that “More laws equals ‘effectiveness’ in government”. That’s only true in dictatorships….

    • Steve Matsukawa

      While what was said by the congressmen/women and their various staffers was nice, it still doesn’t change what congress outputs.  What congress represents collectively is a group of greedy people who love to get money from the various lobbyists and do their bidding.  It makes it easier to do business rather than the hard business of running a country.

      If you look at the congressional record over the years, less and less is done, and more and more is given to those who line the palms of politicians.  The average taxpayer has no chance in this scheme.  America as a country is suffering from an inactive and polarized congress.

      It’s time for grown men to stop acting as if they are juvenile delinquents and grow a pair and start acting like the adults they claim to be.  Politicians were voted into their offices for a purpose, and that purpose is to represent the taxpaying voters who voted them into office.

    • Guest

      #19 – There are age requirements for congress. You can’t be elected to the Senate if you are under 30, and you have to be at least 25 for the House. I would be shocked if I ever saw a Congressman under 30, and I woul seriously doubt his competence given his lack of life experience.

      If the military were limited to 535 people, required election to get in, and required education & job skills to already be in place, it would not have anyone under 30 in it, either.

      • heymac

        Life experience is overrated compared to intelligence, skill, values,,,,etc

        • Austin

          I would consider lessons learned to be of far more importance than textbook education.