Elected officials need a good dose of humility if they expect to tackle policy challenges successfully and engage in a serious debate on the role of government, a former congressman said on Thursday.
There is too much distrust, insularity and inexperience right now in Congress, said former Iowa Republican Jim Nussle, who addressed a group Thursday morning at the National Academy of Public Administration’s annual conference in Washington. “They don’t know each other, they don’t like each other, they don’t trust each other,” said Nussle, who also led the Office of Management and Budget during the George W. Bush administration. “I guarantee you that there is no one in this room who would negotiate with me on the issues as important as what we’re talking about if you and I didn’t get to know one another.”
Nussle recounted anecdotes and insights from his days in Congress and at OMB, emphasizing how important it was for him to engage his colleagues personally and to encourage team work and communication.
“You all know this,” Nussle told the crowd of current and former public servants. “You are never able to manage more than about 5,6,7,8 people, and that’s it. You know, managing OMB? 500 people? I didn’t manage OMB,” Nussle cracked. “You did,” he said, turning to the event’s moderator Robert Shea, who worked with Nussle at OMB during the Bush years and is currently a principal at Grant Thornton. “We all did, because it’s a team effort, if you do it right,” Nussle added. “Anyone who thinks they can manage an organization of that size is really fooling themselves, if they are honest about it.” Nussle said managers need a team of people to guide, and that will provide them with “constant circular feedback” so they know what’s really happening.
Nussle voiced the frustration that many people feel toward Washington, and offered some advice to policymakers: Don’t be so sanctimonious. “There have been many times in my career where I have not contributed to that civility and comity,” said the eight-term congressman, who now runs The Nussle Group, a public affairs, media and strategic consulting firm. “We all have to admit [to ourselves] there have been times when I haven’t been as good a listener, when I’ve complained first and didn’t have a plan…a little humility would go a long way.”
The Iowan served in Congress during the 1990s and early aughts, hardly a time of bipartisan harmony, he and others noted. But redistricting, the 24-hour news cycle and a lack of personal relationships among members of different parties have made things worse, he said. Nussle, a conservative Republican who was chairman of the House Budget Committee during his tenure, talked about getting to know his liberal colleague Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., when they traveled to Africa as lawmakers to learn more about the continent’s approach to the AIDS crisis. Later, the two served together on the Budget Committee. Nussle recounted his first speech as the new budget chairman. “I was very full of myself,” Nussle said, about his then-opening remarks to the committee. McDermott passed a note along to Nussle during that meeting, which read: “Smile, Mr. Chairman, you have the votes,” Nussle recalled, laughing. “He would have never done that, and I never would have smiled as a result of it, or maybe even remembered the conversation, if we had not gone to sub-Saharan Africa together,” Nussle said. “Maybe it’s a silly example, but some of that is lost today.”
Both the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-led Senate have several new and unseasoned lawmakers at the moment, which has made the policymaking process extra difficult, according to Nussle. “These guys are inexperienced,” Nussle said, pointing out that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas – the lawmaker who figured prominently in the debate over the government shutdown – “has yet to pass an amendment, let alone a bill on the floor. You don’t have to single out Ted, you can single out anybody,” Nussle added. “While from time to time, I was frustrated with some of my senior colleagues who had been there [in Congress] too long, I learned a lot from them along the way, too.”
Elected officials are no different from other people when it comes to how they operate, said Nussle. “This is about human nature. You know, I speak to these groups around the country, and they are somewhat mesmerized by Congress and the government, that there must be something special about them that’s different… and [they’re] not.” Nussle said he serves on his local church council, and they too fight over the budget. “If you changed the words and put it on C-SPAN, it would possibly look a lot like [Congress], and all we’re trying to do is fix the organ.”