When Alexandra Pelosi, documentarian and daughter of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, sat down with 15 departing members of Congress in the last few months of 2018, her goal was to come out of it with something close to a guide for all the energetic new members.
Her main takeaway was that no one should expect to shake up Congress right away— it's an institution that’s been around a long time, it's set up to prevent drastic change, and it takes a long time for any individual member to actually get something done. Which is why it can be a very frustrating place.
Here’s how former New Jersey Rep. Frank LoBiondo put it: “I just had a couple projects completed. One that I worked on for 20 years. So if you think you're going to get here and snap your fingers and flip a light switch that you can get something done, you've got a rude awakening coming.”
Former Illinois Rep. Luis Guttierez was a little more blunt about it. He said when he first came to Congress, he wanted to know how he and other new members could put their stamp on the agenda. The answer he got back was, “Don’t get out of line.”
In this current Congress, we're already seeing some new members who don't seem to care where the line is. Perhaps that signals a change for how Congress works, but former Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin had some advice for the eager new crop of freshmen. “Young members of Congress that come in here really animated, really excited they get too passionate to the point where they make it personal. And you don't advance your cause by being personal and being too emotional.”
Here’s some more advice for new members:
Former Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.): “This is a meritocracy. Do not be a generalist. Be a specialist.”
Former Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.): “Put your big-girl pants on and don't let the suckers get you down.
Former Rep. Frank Lobiondo (R-N.J.): “Don’t get rolled.…Don't get rolled means that when leadership has an initiative, you'll get all kinds of pressure to vote in a way that you may not be comfortable with, and if you have a district agenda and it does not fit for the district, don't get rolled.
But has President Trump brought us into a new era of politics where that advice doesn’t matter anymore? While his presence hasn’t really changed the parliamentarian rules or structure of Congress, it has made a difference in the way the game is played. That may signal that no one has to wait for his or her turn anymore.
That's what Alexandra Pelosi is watching for in this new Congress: whether we're actually on the cusp of a larger change in the congressional game, or if everything ends up being business as usual.
This segment originally aired January 2, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.