Why Congress Is More like ‘Game of Thrones,’ Not ‘House of Cards’

How does the Hill really work? That’s a valid question for many people — govies included. Trying to keep pace with Congress is all the more confusing now that continuing resolutions seem more commonplace than normal budgeting processes.

So what’s a fed to do?

Bernard Fulton, who serves as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Congressional Relations at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), shared personal advice with feds about what goes on behind the scenes of Capitol Hill, how they can interact with staffers and the policy and politics aspects of the Hill.

Contrary to popular belief, Congress is much like “Game of Thrones,” not like “House of Cards,” Fulton said Monday at the Next Generation of Government Training Summit.

For those of you who are diehard fans of these shows, perhaps you’ll agree. Fulton argued that the Netflix series “House of Cards” is about one lawmaker trying to rise above and be more powerful than Congress, while HBO’s “Game of Thrones” is broadly about several different families trying to rule the Iron Throne.

There are 535 different people — men and women — trying to serve their constituents, their country and their own ambitions, Fulton said. He even briefly took it back to the “Schoolhouse Rock” days, reminding those who may have forgot Congress has two chambers. “You’ll be surprised how easy it is to forget,” he joked.

For the rest of you who have this fact memorized, let’s move on to more advanced points that may be helpful.

First up is policy. Fulton used the so-called Charlie Rangel rule to bring this point home. If it takes more than 10 seconds to explain an idea, you’ve already lost the idea. Voters think in sound bites and headlines. Think Obamacare or the death penalty and the varying emotions those words provoke. In the House, there are 435 members trying to be heard. Those who can explain to voters in 10 seconds why their idea is right and popular are better able to cut through the noise. Government employees can also use this tactic when communicating their ideas to members of Congress. Being timely when responding to information requests from the Hill and doing so in a concise manner is important.

“You can make a difference just by knowing your stuff,” without the country club memberships, trips and fancy receptions,” Fulton said. It’s about building relationships with lawmakers and really anyone who works directly with that member, include press officers.

Next is procedure. Congress is full of procedures. There are procedures for passing a budget that should include explanations of funding and how that money is being spent, Fulton said. Instead, Congress has reverted to bills that for the most part keep funding flat.

Part of the problem is there are 535 chest master trying to “out maneuver” each other. But the battles aren’t only within Congress.

One of the most shocking things Fulton learned when he transitioned from lobbying to a government job was that fights over policy in the administration can be just as brutal as they are in Congress, but the public just doesn’t get a front-row seat to the action. It’s hard to be in the legislature or in the administration and not understand policy, Fulton said.

But even the best of us mess up sometimes, forget our 10-second pitches or find ourselves in a bind when dealing with members on the Hill. “When in doubt, always make compliments,” he said.

From July 20-21 we will be blogging from GovLoop and YGL’s Next Generation of Government Training Summit. Following along @NextGenGov and read more blog posts here.

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