Recently, I was on a plane, as I often am, and a woman sat down beside me who was crying. I wondered to myself what her story might be — what was she leaving or going to that was causing such distress. We all have a “story.” Experiences in our life that shape who we are and define the “principles” that guide us. This “story” makes us passionate and motivated — sometimes stubborn and defensive. Luckily, we each have the power to determine what our story will be — by being wise about those things that are within our control and by how we respond to things we don’t control.
The outcome of this last election makes me wonder, what is the “story” of the incoming class of 112th Congress? What will their legacy be? It’s clear that the American people, and importantly, the next generation of leaders, are watching closely.
I have had the pleasure of interviewing ten political figures with good character from both sides of the aisle who I studied to produce my book, Politics with Principle. And having worked with and observed the Congressional legislative process since the 95th Congress, I want to humbly offer the following counsel to the new members of the 112th Congress based on what I learned from these successful public servants.
- Stick with what got you here. When you come to Washington, don’t get carried away with the trappings of your office. Remember that you owe not just your industry to your constituents, but your judgment.
- As you already learned on the political campaign trail, character is everything. You cannot purchase decency or rent a strong moral character. Maintain at all times the dignity of your office. Do the simple things — practice good manners and think about others first.
- Be honest with yourself about yourself and with others in all things. Never lie, cheat, or steal. Be true to your word. Then other legislators will trust you because you are worthy of their trust. Be trustworthy to all and loyal to your friends.
- How you handle your legislative responsibilities will determine your path of growth or regression, so do the tough tasks first. Have a clear and grand vision, but master the details as well. Keep a sense of fair play, and do not try to be too clever in passing your legislative agenda. Be a good steward of federal funds and avoid pork for the sake of your district and state. As Washington said in his Farewell Address… “We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.”
- Use time well. Never stop learning, seek out and learn from great people. Focus every hour of every day on what you ought to be doing, not want you might want to be doing. It is good use of the present that assures your future.
- Master humility and let others share the applause. Always take your legislative responsibilities seriously but never take yourself too seriously.
- It is easy to be virtuous when virtue is rewarded, but not so easy when virtue is ignored and partisanship is rewarded. Be prepared to compromise in tactical matters but resolute and steadfast in matters of principle. Don’t give up on your ideals or run to expediency. Stand for what you believe in, even though it may not be popular.
- Be civil to those across the aisle and disagree agreeably. Curb the excesses of political rhetoric. Do not question another Member’s motives; rather, question the wisdom or effectiveness of their policy recommendations.
- Remember to go home at night. Treasure the blessing of a good and lasting marriage and the family it produces. Establish your priorities and remember them.
These guiding principles come to you from 10 political players who collectively gave nearly 300 years of public service. If you make these principles your own, you will become a successful, selfless public servant — and as a result our country will thrive. You will bring to the public square a demonstration of the Judeo-Christian Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And you will successfully change the tone of American politics that is desperately desired by the electorate.
You may or may not always get recognition for your service, but in the end, you will realize that it is enough that you alone know what good you have done. And that will be the “story” of the 112th Congress that history will remember.
Michael J. Kerrigan is a lobbyist, author, lecturer and founder of The Character Building Project.