The FiscalNote Executive Institute community was invited to participate in “New Congress, New Problems,” a virtual discussion featuring Bruce Mehlman, founder of Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas, former Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Technology Policy under President George W. Bush, and former General Counsel to the National Republican Congressional Committee; Nicole Venable, lobbyist with Invariant GR, former lead Democrat at The Bockorny Group, and former executive director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s congressional and public affairs division; and moderator Kate Ackley, CQ Roll Call’s Senior Staff Writer covering lobbying, campaign money, and big-picture political and policy trends on Nov. 10, 2020.
The panel focused on how to build relationships with new and returning members of Congress and tips for maximizing government relations in 2021. Some key takeaways:
What do we know about the 117th Congress?
- Newly elected officials reflect growing diversity. Ritchie Torres and Mondaire Jones, the first gay Black men elected to Congress, “epitomize the amount of diversity coming into 117th Congress,” Nicole said.
- It’s the “Year of the Republican Woman.” According to the Center for American Women and Politics, 32 GOP women will join the next Congress and at least 24 Republican women so far will be headed to the House — including at least 13 new members.
- Everyone is “going all in” with Georgia run-offs. “The agenda and where it goes and how it goes is determined by these two seats at this point,” Nicole said. It’s going to be the “most watched, most expensive duo run-offs we’ve ever experienced … we’re in for a very wild ride.”
How can you meet new Congress members remotely?
- Everything old is new (and virtual) again. The New Member Orientation, PACs, and Congress groups will be having virtual sessions, and eventually committee events to meet new chairs. With networking from home, “I think of it like diet soda: it gets the job done but it’s just not the same. You can drink 20 of them and do more things. Zoom is better for meet and greet. It’s an hour from wherever you happen to be … they can do one or two in a day. It still takes time from newly elected members but it takes less time,” Bruce said.
- Figure out “the 100 ways you’re connected to Kevin Bacon.” Research new members and new clients and see if there’s a footprint. Are they looking for new staffers, are there any people who once worked for you now filling strategic staff positions with new members? You’ll probably uncover “many existing relationships with people who are candidates,” Bruce said. “The great moments in any job — but especially lobbying — is when your intern becomes chief of staff … be nice to everyone, you never know where people will end up. Treating people well and investing in people always ultimately leads to pay off.”
- Look beyond PACs and “network with people in your network” to find a way in. “Do you belong to associations, coalitions, an alumni network from your school? Do you have colleagues who are more social who can loop you in? It takes more effort because unexpected side conversations are so heavily curtailed, but you still have neighbors, friends, classmates, clients. … Don’t limit your interaction to just the weekly standing call that has a business purpose,” Bruce said. “Tell them what you’re looking for and maybe they’ll point out opportunities for you.”
- There’s a new aspect of the new normal that’s creating access. “As a person of color, you need to show up and explain your point of view,” Nicole said. “For a relatively small sum of money, you can get in the room. Pay on a monthly basis. Young women, people of color, you want to be in those places and spaces. This is a part of what we do. Make plans, budget for it. You can get into these Zooms for $25 or $50.”
- Save your asks for a live fire-drill initiative. Don’t immediately follow up with your ask after virtually meeting someone. “You’ve got two years here,” Bruce said. “Say something nice about what they said [after meeting them]. Send a story, begin to develop that positive relationship. Send an email about what they said that you remember. Use your notes. Be organized.”
What can we expect with committee assignments and policy priorities?
- Pay attention to leadership races. “For Democrats, we go much more on a seniority basis; we have a couple of committees we’re watching — the House Appropriations Committee, the House of Foreign Affairs committee,” Nicole said. “Once you see where the seats land on leadership races, you can see how things are going to work out on seats.”
- The pandemic is the lens. “The conservative majority of the Supreme Court isn’t about to blow up the Healthcare Act. In the middle of the pandemic, that’s good,” Bruce said. “Biden might be the only Democrat who can keep things moderate, incremental and small. Turn the temperature down and address COVID-19.”
- Infrastructure remains critical. It’s “more about how much than about whether,” Bruce said. “We’re in an economy where we need to have a sustained recovery to make our country resilient and productive.” Nicole agrees. “We’re going to look at where we have the consensus and where we’ve seen we have problems and fix things from an incremental sense. It’s not just roads and bridges, there’s much more there than just how we’re getting things,” she said.
- Executive Orders, Cabinet appointees, and robust oversight: We’ll likely see President-elect Biden tearing up Executive Orders “in the same way Trump tore up Obama’s,” Bruce said, as well as a battle between Republicans on confirming nominees who are demanding deals “on what they will or won’t do regulatorially. If you don’t confirm their folks, they’ll pull out their playbooks.” But COVID-19 profiteering is a largely bipartisan issue, he said. “Democrats will have oversight about the last four years, how things will be done. … People will tell their tales. … If you have control you can have oversight hearings. Oversight lawyers are going to be very busy the next year or two.”
- Healthcare and voting rights. With healthcare, “there are a lot of higher ed questions that need to be addressed. It’s not going to be a traditional thing,” Nicole noted. “There’s going to be a lot that has to be unpacked from this election. On voting rights, there may be some room to move forward. Best practices on elections, things that we can agree on.”
Is renewed bipartisanship on legislation ahead?
- President-elect Biden is a moderate. “There was a heated conversation about a radical agenda … but Biden is in the White House,” Nicole said, noting that Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have pre-existing relationships with many Congress members due to their many years in Washington, D.C. “My hope is that we’ll see a time of renewed bipartisanship and legislating and having actual conferences … but if you have a Senate that believes its mandate is just to say no, we’re going to have issues.”
- The business community is going to be on Republican side. “If you don’t have an progressive agenda, you might want White House to be in the Senate’s hands,” Bruce said. “Business is walking away from this election feeling like they did pretty well: a return to more competence, calm, capability.” But “businesses will go with Sen. McConnelll as opposed to President Biden,” he said.
- Actions speak louder than words. “There was a lot of messaging in the 116th Congress … now they have to go back and legislate these bills, as opposed to making grandiose points,” Nicole said. “What does a vaccine cost? Who’s going to get that? Prescription prices, etc.” We’re going to have to “triage priorities and see what can get done on that path of incremental change.
- Will the majority of the majority cooperate? “I remain hopeful on moderate items, that you’ll see the majority of the majority step up to work with Democrats. Biden will be the first Democrat to take the White House without a Democratic Senate since 1984,” Bruce said.