Center for Effective Lawmaking

Discussing Legislative Effectiveness with Representative Gerry Connolly

Discussing Legislative Effectiveness with Representative Gerry Connolly

Representative Gerry Connolly has served as the U.S. representative for Virginia’s 11th congressional district since 2009. Representative Connolly has been identified by the Center for Effective Lawmaking (CEL) as being the most effective Democratic lawmaker in the U.S. House during the 117th Congress, as well as the most effective Democratic House Member in the area of government operations. He was also cited as having one of the longest streaks of “Exceeding Expectations” among all House members.

CEL Co-Directors Craig Volden and Alan Wiseman recently sat down with Representative Connolly to discuss his career in public service and his effective lawmaking in Congress. Among the topics discussed were: why practical experience is critical for lawmaking, the value of an experienced congressional staff, how Congress has become more polarized during his tenure, why lawmakers should be selective about the policy areas they work in, how caucuses can be helpful for lawmaking, and the differences between the House and Senate in passing legislation.

Connolly on the importance of having practical experience in government:

  • “I’m a wonk, I love the abstract, I love the academic. But if we’re going to prepare ourselves to help manage government, you’ve gotta have some practical experience, and you’ve gotta value people who have that experience.” [Using one’s personal background in legislating connects with our five habits of highly effective lawmakers]

Connolly on being a former congressional staffer:

  • “There is no question that having been a committee staffer for ten years was great preparation for coming to the House.” [For more information about the benefits of experienced congressional staff, see our op-ed in The Hill]

Connolly on polarization:

  • “When I was a freshman…we had three or four different orientation programs, and I found them all of great value. Today, those orientation programs are bifurcated on a partisan basis. And that’s too bad, because the common experience of both Republicans and Democrats, I think, is enormously valuable…It’s a shared experience: we’re all new, we’re all a little insecure, and we’re in this together as Democrats and Republicans…” [For more information on the benefits of bipartisanship in Congress, see our published paper]

See the full interview (with complete transcript) below:

Alan Wiseman: (00:10)

Hello. My name is Alan Wiseman, and I am the chair of the Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University, and along with Craig Volden at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, I’m also the Co-Director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking. We’re very excited to welcome Congressman Gerry Connolly with us today. He represents Virginia’s Eleventh Congressional District and we’re excited to have him sit down with us and talk about his experiences within Congress. As many of you might know, Representative Connolly was first elected to Congress in 2009, having previously served in public office as a member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors since 1995, including 5 years when he served as chair from 2004 to 2009. Representative Connelly has distinguished himself from his peers in many notable ways in regards to his lawmaking, effectiveness, and his engagement with the legislative process. For example, according to our data at the Center for Effective Lawmaking, he has been consistently identified as being one of the members of the House who scores what we refer to as “above expectations” in his lawmaking effectiveness. In other words, he is notably more successful at advancing his legislative agenda items than what we would have expected him to be given his relative seniority, his institutional position in the Chamber, and whether or not he’s been a member of the majority or minority party. Most recently, he was identified as being the most effective member of the House in advancing policies pertaining to government operations in the recently concluded 117th Congress, and even beyond that he was identified as being the most effective lawmaker in the House overall in the 117th Congress among all members, both Republicans and Democrats alike. So Congressman Connolly, thanks so much for joining us at the Center for Effective Lawmaking. We’re planning on asking you a series of relatively general questions, but we’d love to hear from you really, in any direction you’d like to take it, including some specific examples from your own experience in your time in the House, and even beyond before that.


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (02:05)

Sure, let’s get into it.


Alan Wiseman: (02:07)

Great. Well, as I said before, what we’d like to do is start off with some questions about your background, and by that I mean, before you were elected the House to get a sense about how your previous political experience has really shaped your perspectives on being a lawmaker in Washington. So, as I alluded to in my introductory comments, starting with your service in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, I’d be curious to hear what you felt that you learned from that position that then translated pretty organic with your time in the House.


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (02:34)

Well, I if we go, if I can just go back even further, right?


Alan Wiseman: (02:38)



Rep. Gerry Connolly: (02:39)

From a very early age, I always had an interest in both politics and international issues. So I studied to be a foreign missionary. In graduate school, I specialized in foreign policy. I ran two international NGOs here in Washington – non-governmental organizations – one on hunger and food, and the other on refugees. Then I went after graduate school to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where as a staffer. And even in the 20 years I was in private sector, my practice involved a lot of international business. And in my 14 years in local government, I still did international projects for the World Bank, for the National Democratic Institute. I would travel overseas with an exchange program we have with Germany. I travel to Israel. So I kept that flame alive, and of course, logically, when I came here to the House, I immediately joined the House Foreign Affairs Committee.


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (03:47)

To your question, I believe local government…First of all, I believe local government is the most important level of government. Because it is the level of execution. You actually have to do something – you can’t prevaricate, you can’t profundicate, you’ve got to do something. And you’d better deliver. And here’s the other interesting thing: the accountability and local government, unlike other levels of government, is absolute. Citizens know “Is the crime rate up or down?”, “Is the high school dropout rate up or down?”, “Are schools performing or not?”, “Did the streetlamp get fixed or not?”, “Did the pothole get filled or not?”. And so every day when you’re a local government, the accountability is absolute and tolerance for failure is very low. And so I love that; it’s a little bit like being on the edge of a race car. And you know, tragedy could be just around the corner. And I kinda like that accountability. I like that thrill. I like the risk. But I also like the upside where you can see your handiwork. I can take you all over my district and I can show you the transit line I helped get built. I can show you new libraries I get built. I can show you roads I got into the state system. I can show you improvements I made. I can show you street signs I fixed, I mean, I had a street sign in an African American neighborhood that was named Douglas after Frederick Douglass – except it only had one “s” in it. And so somebody brought it to my attention like “You do know they are misspelling the name?” I mean, in honoring a great black leader, they’re actually dissing him by getting his name wrong. And one of the first things I did was insist on replacing that sign. Now, that may seem like a simple thing, but it showed enormous respect for that community, and it fixed an irritant that mattered. And so in little and big ways, in local government, you can change lives. I wrote the first environmental plan for my county. I had a massive affordable housing initiative. I had an anti-gang initiative. Just all kinds of stuff. We’ve expanded parks. We did all kinds of stuff. It was a wonderful experience in being able to effect transformation and live to see it.


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (06:30)

In Congress, a lot of what we do we know will be consequential, but it could be years before anyone sees it. And it takes so long to get to the legislative accomplishment that you might not even live to see that either. So I just think it was great preparation in orienting me to the fact that, hey, writing a bill and getting it passed is only part of the solution – it’s not an end in and of itself, and you gotta be very aware of that. And, secondly, you better write a bill with some practical experience. I’ll give you an example of one that I thought full of good intentions, but obviously whoever wrote it never ran a school district, and that was No Child Left Behind. They put they put a big red “F” on schools that didn’t meet subgoals. So you could have a school that was really succeeding in many, many categories, but you failed in one of them, and we give you an “F.” – you fail overall. And we gave them no money – it was another unfunded mandate. Well, what teacher wants to continue teaching in a failing school? What parent wants their kids to go to a failing school? What principal wants that to be in their career path? And so it compounded problems instead of resolving problems. It was good intentions gone terribly awry. Had somebody actually had experience in running a school system, I think that bill would have been a lot more pointed and effective. And so I think if you’ve had the local government experience, I think you bring that executive management perspective to the problems we try to address legislatively appear.


Craig Volden: (08:29)

So that background on the whole, and then bringing that experience to Congress, as a really important element of thinking through expertise. I wanted to start from my perspective – even a little bit earlier – and then, partly because I’m here at the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, so I wanted to talk a little bit about your Master’s of Public Administration degree. How do you feel that studying public policy and graduate school might have provided some valuable insights to your subsequent governmental career? I know a lot of people decide to go to law school as one of their paths. But why public policy? And how did that play out, either locally or in Congress?


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (09:13)

Well, although there was a lot of public policy, my degree is actually in public administration. And – in those days, anyhow, I’m sure it’s improved – but Harvard was very divided between the theoretical, academic, abstract part of the school government and the practical manager who actually did it. And Harvard was snotty enough that it wouldn’t give tenure to the practical people who didn’t have the Ph.D. And that was a terrible mistake. And so we would have great academicians who would never serve the government in the school of government.



Rep. Gerry Connolly: (09:58)

In fact, the classic example of that was the dean of the school at the time – he’s still there – Graham Allison. Graham Allison went to undergrad at Harvard, got a master’s at Harvard, got his Ph.D at Harvard, then was hired to teach at Harvard, did postgraduate work at Harvard, and then became the dean of one of the Harvard schools. Note he didn’t step outside of the Harvard system. Not only academic – he had no practical experience in government whatsoever, and yet he became the dean of what was supposed to be the professional analog to the business school for government. And when he finally got a government job – briefly – he fell on his face and had to resign because he screwed up and he didn’t know what he was doing. And that part of my degree I did not respect. I’m all for – I’m a wonk, I love the abstract, I love the academic. But if we’re going to prepare ourselves to help manage government, you’ve gotta have some practical experience, and you’ve gotta value people who have that experience.


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (11:05)

I’ll give you an example, Craig – Howard Raiffa developed something called the “decision tree.” Very elaborate, really intriguing. But if you’re an actual manager in the public sector, and I know the flood is threatening your city, and you’ve got minutes to make decisions, you’re not gonna tell every “Timeout – we’re gonna do a decision tree analysis.” That’s not how the real world works. And the other thing at Harvard in that particular program, there was this bifurcation between the young people in what they called the MPP program – the master’s in public policy – versus, say, the mid-career MPA. And I was in the latter, and I remember telling faculty members “We’ll hire those people. They’ll never run things. They’ll be analysts. But the people who are going to run things are the people in public administration.” And so a little more respect for that side of your graduate school – might be an honor. But if your whole orientation is academician, what do you prize? You prize academicism – that’s what you reward, that’s what you want to teach, and I understand that. But if you want to be a professional school that is preparing managers of the future in the public sector, you’ve got to meld these two things. And in a way, I don’t think the Kennedy School – when I was there – was always successful at.


Craig Volden: (12:40)

So enough to get diving out into the real world, and then that’s where the real experience was taking hold for you.


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (12:46)

Yeah, there’s no question I benefited from the experience of Harvard, because it makes you very conscious of how you organize a problem, how you try to marshal talent to address a problem. You know, there are a lot of skills that get reinforced in that discipline. But I guess I’m talking about a little wariness about making public sector management an academic subject. It is much more than that, and you’ve got to give some respect to the people who’ve actually done it.


Alan Wiseman: (13:30)

Congressman, I really appreciate the points you’re raising regarding kind of practical expertise on the ground experience, especially thinking about organizing staff, for example. And I guess related to that a question that I had for you is, once again thinking about prior to being elected to Congress but after your experience at Harvard: you were a staff member on the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate, similar to some members of Congress that have some really meaningful staff experience. I’d be really curious to hear your perspectives on how your previous experience as a staff member really informed your view about the role of staff in Congress and/or you how you went about organizing your own staff upon being elected to the House. How much of that was informed by your own experiences?


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (14:15)

Yeah, that’s a good one. There is no question that having been a committee staffer for ten years was great preparation for coming to the House. I’d written bills. I’d written amendments. I knew how the process worked. I’d negotiated Senate and House provisions. I knew how to create a network among my colleagues and among staff. I knew how to interact with the executive branch. I knew how to get information and where to get information. I knew how to quickly identify people who could be helpful and people who could not. I knew how to work with outside coalition groups who could influence the legislative process and become allies, or how to defang groups that might be adversaries. And so no question, it was a huge advantage for me. The institution was not mystical – I didn’t spend six months staring at the dome of the Capitol. Not that I don’t revere the dome of the Capitol – I do – but I was not in awe coming here because I’d already worked here for ten years. So huge advantage. And you can see it in, especially my first two years – my freshman year, freshman term – with some others of my colleagues who did not have that advantage, that comparable experience.


Craig Volden: (15:47)

Right on that front: how do you feel the institution of Congress is working today to get members up to speed and kind of help them through that that initial learning curve to become effective lawmakers?


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (16:00)

I think there are a lot of resources at your command. And I think I’m always impressed that freshmen get up to speed fairly quickly. You know, part of its aptitude; part of its intellect; part of it is the people you hire; part of it is the mentors you might attract. I mean, we don’t do a good job here when you become a new member of Congress. It’s not like we assign somebody to you to help, you know, be your serpa. I wish we did. I think it would be helpful. It’s a little bit like being thrown into the deep end of the pool and, you know, now you’re on your own, learn how to swim. Especially, by the way, that’s true if you get elected in a special election. So if you don’t come in with a class – you come in sort of mid-cycle – you’re expected to become a member of Congress right after you’re sworn in, you have no transition, and, you know, good luck. And that’s hard. But I am impressed over the years with how quickly new members of Congress seem to adjust and become productive. And I think leadership has done a better job of also giving them opportunities so they get experience quickly. Yeah, we’re gonna let you introduce that bill and that means you manage it. You’re gonna get that floor time opportunity to give a speech quickly to make motions on the floor so that you’re not intimidated by that, and you get that done early and you get comfortable with it. I think we, as an institution, we’ve done a much better job doing that. When I was a freshman, we had like, I think, we had three or four different orientation programs, and I found them all of great value. Today, those orientation programs are bifurcated on a partisan basis. And that’s too bad, because the common experience of both Republicans and Democrats, I think, is enormously valuable. Right? It’s a shared experience: we’re all new, we’re all a little insecure, and we’re in this together as Democrats and Republicans because we’re all new. Actually bifurcating that so, no, Democrats go in one corner and Republicans go in another, and we all have our separate but parallel orientation programs – I just think, contributes to further division and polarization in the institution.


Craig Volden: (18:27)

Yeah, thanks. That’s very helpful.


Alan Wiseman: (18:29)

Well, thinking about your own experiences over the last many years you’ve been in Congress, as I noted in your introduction, in the most recently completed Congress, you’re identified by the Center for Effect Lawmaking as being the most effective lawmaker in the House. But putting aside your success in the 117th Congress, I mean, Congress after Congress after Congress, you’ve consistently been identified as one of most successful members within your party. And thinking about, perhaps starting off with a really positive orientation experience, knowing how to hire staff, as you said, your own personal expertise having been a Senate staffer or Senate committee staffer, I guess, bluntly speaking, what do you feel contributes to your general success in lawmaking in the House at this point in your career?


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (19:14)

Well, I would say, the first thing is putting together a core team that works well together who are committed to the mission. It isn’t a 9-to-5 commitment for them – it’s about the mission, it’s about getting things done. I would say also, I have an ethos that not everyone does which surprises me. But my ethos is I came here to legislate – that’s why I’m here. So let’s not just talk about a problem – let’s figure out what the legislative fix is, or how we can at least contribute to solving the problem of fixing it legislatively. And so I think that’s a very important perspective and I thought you ought to bring to the job. As you know, I’ve got colleagues for whom the job is performative – has nothing to do with legislative achievement. It has to do with, you know, bloviating on the floor or getting on cable television or something. But it’s not about legislative achievement – that’s the last thing in the world they wanna do. So I do think it’s your perspective. I also think you’ve gotta – I learned this as a staff member, I learned this in other chapters of my life – but you got to be persistent. First of all, you’ve got to be persistent, because things take time. But if your colleagues know that you are going to be persistent, it changes their perspective. In other words, if they know if we kill your bill in this Congress, we’re never gonna hear from you again about that, well, good. If I know, on the other hand, “Oh, my God, Alan’s never gonna give up. He’s gonna be right back at it first thing under the new Congress, and he’s gonna be even more tenacious and more of a pain about it, maybe we need to cut a deal. Maybe we need to finally take this seriously.” So you can influence the environment by not only your demeanor, but by the nature of your commitment. I think persistence, but also a quality team that you’ve built, that is with you. A lot of stuff gets done at the staff level. Most of our legislative process is not done member-to-member, it’s done staff-to-staff. And so having a competent quality staff that has the skill set to interact in a creative and respectful but firm way with their counterparts here in the House and in the Senate and how to interact with the outside public and interest groups – those are skills that take years to learn and they’re highly valuable. And I’ve been blessed with a team…the core of my team has been with me all 15 years I’ve been in Congress.


Craig Volden: (22:05)

Yeah, I mean, what you’re saying really resonates with what we at the Center for Effective Lawmaking have found as the habits of highly effective lawmakers. And I wanna kinda do a deeper dive into one of those habits as well, and that’s about kind of being selective with the legislation that one puts forward. So many members of Congress – it seems like they get scattered across so many different issue areas. And we found that the kind of the most effective lawmakers really dive in and specialize – maybe introduce about half of their legislation in a single issue area. And then, when we look at your portfolio, seems about half -maybe just above half – are in issues of government operations, aligning very nicely with your committee assignments, aligning very nicely with your background expertise, your district interest. So wondered a little bit more about that specialization and was that a coincidence or active strategy? And how do you kind of balance that government operations against still your deep interest in international affairs, where your second largest category of bill sponsors?


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (23:06)

Yeah, that’s a good question. But let’s put aside – there’s always opportunity, right? So you know you can’t dismiss that. But the piece of advice I got when I first got here by more senior members was, you know, pick a lane – pick something that you’re gonna own, you’re gonna really specialize in. You can’t. as you suggest, Craig, you can’t be all, things to all people, you can’t cover the whole waterfront, even though my own intellectual curiosity rebelled against that advice initially. I love budgets and economics. I love foreign policy. I love – having run a local government that was a full-service local government, one of the largest local governments in America – as you might imagine, my interest was extensive in a broad range of things, and I wanted to come here and make a change, make a difference. But I can’t be a healthcare expert. I can’t be a financial wizard. I can’t be the walking budgeteer of the Congress. I can’t be an IT expert. I can’t be a foreign policy – I can’t be all those things.


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (24:24)

So, and part of what shapes you, I think, is the committee assignment you get. I didn’t like my assignment on Oversight and Reform when I first got it. Because I wanted to be on Transportation and Infrastructure, because the nature of my district, transportation is almost always number one issue. And I didn’t get it. They decided to give it to someone else who didn’t care at all about transportation. And, by the way, I brought enormous expertise on transportation, given my role in local government. I did public-private partnerships. I did toll roads. I did a transit line. I did federal funding formulas. I mean, the whole thing. And it just seems such a waste of experience not to put me in TNI. They put me on Oversight Reform, and I was so upset they said, “Well, all right, we’ll give you another one if you want it,” and I foolishly asked to be in Budget because I love budgets. And everyone said, “Do not go in three committees,” and everybody was right. With really good intention being a policy walk, my motives were pure, but there was no upside to being on the third committee, especially Budget. So I decided, all right, “I’m gonna make Oversight and Reform work for me” and given the nature of my district, we’re dealing with federal employees, federal contracts issues, government operations, how the government operates and is structured, how accountability vehicles like inspectors general, looking at – you know, public policy issues just make me go pity pat, because they just do, like, how do we handle improper payments? And on and on. And so, I decided, “Okay, I’m gonna make Oversight and Reform my home committee. I’m going to make something of it.” The opportunity for both Foreign Affairs and Oversight – not being “A” committees – is you can move up rapidly in seniority, because there’s a lot of turnover as people go on to other committees. And I decided, all right, I’m gonna make them work and move up fast. And I decided that, given the contours of my district, federal employee issues, postal reform, and federal IT modernization and cyber and other tech issues was my lane – that’s gonna be my lane. And that’s what I’m focused on.


Craig Volden: (26:56)

And so part of that committee is also oversight, and so could you talk a little bit about how engaging in oversight might affect lawmaking?


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (27:03)

Oh, sure! When I was Subcommittee Chair, I would say that there were probably a dozen examples where we structured hearings and then introduced legislation based on the evidence and data we had collected during the hearings. IT, federal IGs – inspectors general – federal employee issues. Maybe I’m doing some of the depredations of the Trump Administration that we thought were injurious to government operations and the workplace for federal employees. So yeah, the direct relationship between oversight and that. The other example I give you, which I think is unique in the history of Congress – I challenge you both to see if I’m wrong – but I co-authored and co-wrote the bill for FITARA – the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act – about nine years ago now. And I vowed that I was gonna stick around on our committee and see that it was implemented because the predecessor legislation was called Clinger-Cohen, and that was the framework legislation for how the Federal Government approached IT. So our bill was a modernization of that, an updated that, and the new framework. And the problem with Clinger-Cohen is Cohen became Secretary of Defense and Clinger retired, and there was nobody invested in making sure it got implemented. So I vowed we were not gonna do that. And we have had fifteen hearings. I created a scorecard with seven or eight categories, and they’re flexible – we sometimes retire one and create a new one – for scoring every federal agency in terms of how they’re doing in those categories and then an overall score. And it’s really made a difference: we’ve saved over $24 billion – with a “B” – I don’t know how many other programs can say that. But, more importantly, in some ways, we’ve created an accountability architecture and an incentive architecture for federal agencies to get right with the Lord: retire legacy systems, consolidate data centers, move to the cloud, and make sure you’re encrypted and crypto-protected. Those are all really important things when you think of the assets the federal government manages so. So I’m very proud of that – fifteen hearings over seven years. And as a result, let’s say those in the bureaucracy who would like to resist congressional oversight realized “They’re never gonna give up, are they? They’re gonna have two hearings a year. We could be hauled before them. We’re gonna have to account for ourselves.” And CIOs have used it to go to the boss saying, “Hey, we don’t want another bad grade. And here’s a plan for improving.” And so CIOs really welcome that oversight. So you can make oversight a very powerful tool if you use the hearing process to its best purpose as opposed to using it to, you know, club somebody, or for political partisan advantage. Hearings can do that, too, but I kinda like qualitative substantive hearings that can be used to make – to effectually change.


Craig Volden: (30:45)

And I’m hearing that persistence value and have it coming through again, not just in coming up with your legislation, but making through sure it’s implemented well.


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (30:55)



Alan Wiseman: (30:56)

Yeah, I mean, I found it’s pretty fascinating – not only you identifying the relationship between oversight and legislating, and the obvious role the committees playing Congress, but quite bluntly, I especially appreciate you being so open about not really finding your favorite niche early on in Congress in terms of committee assignments, but then, being quite entrepreneurial in terms of carving out a policy portfolio that really comported with your priorities, given where you sat. I guess, related to that point, if we think about the general organization of members of Congress beyond committees, it seems like there’s a variety of issue area caucuses or ideological caucuses that help to facilitate other forms of structure in the House. You yourself are a member of the Taiwan Caucus, the Cloud Computing Caucus, the New Democrat Coalition. And I’d be curious if you could provide us with some perspectives on what role you feel these caucuses, these coalitions play in the contemporary legislative process?


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (31:52)

Yeah, for sure. All caucuses are not created equal. So there are caucuses that are very effective and influence things around here. I was a co-founder and original member of the Sustainable Environment and Energy Caucus (SEEK) and became co-chair of it. And we’ve had, over the years, some really meaningful input and an environmental perspective on various things. So we made sure there was environmental provisions in, say, the stimulus bill back in ‘09 under Obama. We made sure that there were environmental concerns in the legislation we passed in the 117th. We’ve teed up the issue of environmental justice in the work Congress does so it’s ever-present on our minds. We’ve got speakers, we got members, but we also push a legislative agenda, and we try to support members of our caucus who have legislation and to magnify their impact by using the caucus to endorse their bills. So it’s not just them introducing something – we’ve got their backs, and we’re, as I said, augmenting the impact of that legislation and hopefully improving the chances of its passage.


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (33:25)

There are also sort of country caucuses. So I co-chair Taiwan. Well, given the tensions with China, that’s actually a very meaningful position, and we will address issues as caucus chairs and that carries some weight in terms of the voice of the caucus, especially countering Chinese malign activity. And drawing a line that says, “Hey, whatever happens to the Taiwan Straits, it’s not gonna be resolved kinetically. We’re not going to allow a military solution being imposed on the people of Taiwan.” And we’ve had enormous success, if you think about it. Not just us – I don’t mean to say it’s only us – but China doesn’t have a single friend in Congress. Taiwan has lots of friends, and so we’ve made a lot of progress.


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (34:30)

I’m Co-Chair of the Turkey Caucus. Not because I have any ethnic group in my district, particularly; I went to it based on my experience in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I felt Turkey is a strategic country. It’s geopolitical location is just – you can’t overstate how important it is. It is the second largest NATO participant after the United States. It’s been a reliable ally. It’s a Muslim democratic country. And we need to help Turkey become a member of the EU and continue its western orientation. Unfortunately, the Europeans refuse to get over lots of biases about Turkey and Erdogan got more and more autocratic in his behavior. And we had a huge, I would say, approaching 250 friends of Turkey in Congress when I first got here, and we were growing, and all that, and Erdogan managed to destroy it. And I would say there’s a lot of rebuilding that has to be done for Turkey. So I now remain a Caucus Co-Chair, but not so much to advocate or for or protect Turkey, but to be a thorn on the side of Erdogan, frankly – calling him out. Because he could – if I were to resign as Caucus Chair, my voice is diminished. As Caucus Chair, it may irritate him to no end, but he has to listen. And so I’ve used that platform to try to influence Turkish politics, and even recently, for example, his blocking of Sweden’s advancement, accession to NATO and I think we were able to have some influence on that.


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (36:30)

So different caucuses go in different directions. Some are nominal. There are, I don’t know, they’re probably hundreds of caucuses. And some I’m very active in and some I sign on to show my support, but they don’t really do much. I formed the Smart Contracting Caucus and we periodically meet and have a program and tee up some issues that I think are useful, both for the government and for the private sector. So you can use it as a forum. You can also use it to just show solidarity with people in your district who just wanna make sure that you cared about their issues, and that’s why you joined not. The Vietnam Human Rights Caucus – I’m a member, I go, and I speak every year when we have a ceremony up here. And that matters a lot to my Vietnamese community in my district.


Craig Volden: (37:31)

So yeah, hearing about a lot of the different platforms and issues that can be addressed through caucuses. I think Alan also mentioned kind of the New Democrats, and we hear a lot about the kind of ideological caucuses. I’d be interested in your thoughts on one of our recent findings: some of our research is suggesting that when Democrats are in the majority in Congress, it seems to be the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party whose bills progress furthest through the House and into law, and in contrast, when Republicans are in the majority, the conservative wing of the Republican Party does not have a similar level of lawmaking success. Just wondered if that is something that resonates with your own experience or insights, or what might be driving that sort of pattern in your view?


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (38:15)

I think I think that’s true. But I think it’s true in part because the composition of Congress has changed so radically since I’ve been here. So when I got elected as a freshman, the Blue Dogs – the more conservative Democrats – were very large in number. I mean, I don’t know, 50 or 60. And they had real influence in the course of public policy when we were writing bills like Dodd-Frank and financial reform, or writing the Affordable Care Act and healthcare reform. We had to sit down with them and negotiate, and there were some real hot and heavy issues, and they carried clout – they had weight. What happened in the disastrous elections of 2010 – if you will, the Tea Party election – is all of those people got wiped out. The Blue Dog Coalition went from whatever it was, 60-something members, to like 15. And we were in the minority after the 2010 wipeout, and so their voice was significantly diminished. And because, if you think about it, more moderate-to-conservative Democrats, by definition, were coming from swing and marginal districts. And when there was a wave, they got washed away to sea. And that’s what happened in 2010. So as a result, permanently, that voice was significantly reduced in influence, and that automatically meant our caucus became more liberal. And I would say those dynamics persist today.


Craig Volden: (40:08)

And so some of that hollowing out of the middle means the parties are polarizing, and it feels like, at least in the Democratic Party, that’s giving more influence to the more liberal wing?


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (40:19)

Yeah, no question about it. And you see the same thing in reverse in the Republican Caucus. And of course, this is all part of a bigger trend of the ideological realignment of the parties. You know, when I was a staffer 40 years ago here in the Senate, there was a liberal wing of the Republican party. People forget. Matt Mathias was a Republican and James Allen from Alabama was a Democrat. Today, that would have been impossible: Matt Mathias would have to be a Democrat, and James Allen would have to be – and would happily be – a Republican. So that realignment is real, and everybody went to their respective corners, and as a result, there are no sort of breaks on the ideological drift of the two parties. There’s no big wing saying “Hey, stop! Hold everything.” I’ll give you an example: if Kevin McCarthy had an active, moderate-to-liberal wing of his party who were assertive, he could use that to go to the far right, saying, “I’d love to give you everything you want, but I can’t – look at those guys are screaming, too. And you know, what am I supposed to do? I got a balancing act here and you are gonna have to respect that.” Right now, the only crowd that speaks up that has any influence or clout is the far right, because the moderates have completely ceded their influence. When you saw him running for Speaker, for example, what was the moderate position? They actually made buttons, for expressing their permanent and forever support of Kevin. And essentially, they said, “You don’t need to worry about us at all. We’re with you from the beginning to the very bitter end.” Well, that meant he was released. He was liberated to only have to listen to and pander to the concerns on the right, and the moderates surrendered unilaterally any leverage, any influence they might have. And we’re still paying a price for that – on the eve of a potential shutdown, on a possible impeachment inquiry of Biden – all because he gets to pander without any worry at all to the right. So the ideological realignment of the two parties, and the consequences of the election of 2010, I think have had a profound impact on our polity, and how this institution works.


Alan Wiseman: (43:02)

Congressman, I’d like to dive into the weeds a little bit to get your perspectives on the ways in which the legislative process works in the contemporary Congress, especially across both chambers. Because as I noted, you were identified by the Center as the most effective lawmaker in the House from the previous Congress. You have this long track record of legislative success. But even someone who is consistently successful, as you often sees – similar to many other representatives – sees many of your sponsored bills make their way from the House, and then ultimately die in the Senate. Really especially given your past work experience in the Senate, I’d be really curious to hear your perspectives on how you see the nature of bicameralism in the contemporary Congress. Do you think it’s changed over the last 30 or 40 years? Or do you think there’s always been this ongoing tension between the chambers and there really isn’t anything new here?


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (43:52)

I’ve always thought, even when I worked in the Senate, that there was an arrogance and haughtiness in the Senate that really impeded some of our work in the institution. Start with the fact that they claim to be, quote, “the upper body.” The only reason they’re referred to as the upper body is, when the first Congress met in New York, the Senate met upstairs, and the House met downstairs. And the reference was, “Go to the upper body if you want to talk to them.” It did not connote higher status. And even that phrase – buried in that phrase – are the seeds of real tension and dysfunction, and ignorance frankly of the Constitution. Because, remember, James Madison thought the premier entity of the U.S. government was the House. And I won’t say we’re the upper body, but you know, the lack of respect from the other body – I don’t just mean psychologically.


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (44:58)

For example, we have something called suspension bills. And that means that if you’ve got a non-controversial bill, we’ll have a vote for you on the floor and suspend the rules and attach a bill. Now, just to give you…100% of the Senate – 75 Senate-originated suspension bills – 100% passed the House. Do you know what the comparable figure of House bills sent over to the Senate is? 29%. Of the 231 suspension bills we sent over there, 67 became law. Now that inequity we control, but the arrogance of the Senate expecting its will to be honored, there’s a simple fix for that: insist on parity. And if you’re not willing to do that well, then, we’re gonna get jammed by the Senate more often than not. When bills are done, when bills are negotiated – the House and Senate versions – in darkness, anything can happen, and anything does. And it magnifies whim over policy. So I can’t tell you how often I’ve had bill stymied by a particular senator who just whimsically decided he didn’t want to do it. Didn’t like it. And you think all our hard work, all of the policy and research and data and lobbying and advocacy and negotiations. And at the very eleventh hour, as we’re trying to wrap things up in December, some SOB in the Senate kills it – for no reason. And nor do they have to give a reason. And this happens way more than I think we had to put up with. And the one piece of leverage we discovered – by the way, becoming your number one effective lawmaker – was suspension bills. We suddenly let it be known that we had some amendments to these Senate suspension bills, and all of a sudden, three of my key bills on our counterpart committee in the Senate, suddenly were released, passed the Senate and became law. By the way, allowing me to surpass my Senate counterpart, who otherwise would have been the most effective lawmaker. Which is kind of ironic…


Alan Wiseman: (47:53)

Which is Senator Peters, who you suggest…


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (47:55)

Yeah, he was headed toward Number One until he had to release my three bills, and that’s how I became Number One. And I wasn’t even aware of your ranking, to be honest with you. I mean, I knew you did this, but I didn’t know – he’s very aware of it – and, you know, it was kind of fun, and I found the irony delicious. But the bad nave between the Senate and House is serious, and the House has got to repair its prerogatives with respect to the Senate. And there have to be consequences or the Senate won’t reciprocate. And I gave you, I mean, think, about that – 100% of their 75 bills made it through the House, 29% of our bills made it to the Senate. This equilibrium is profound and affects legislation. And it affects our ability to even get ranked by you how effective we are!


Craig Volden: (48:54)

I’d love to spend a little bit more of more time behind the scenes here. In particular, regarding those bills that don’t become law on their own, but are kind of rolled into other packages, either in full or in part, and was wondering if you can give us some of the insights into those behind-the-scenes negotiations. For example, it seemed like your office and committee might have been in a position to influence those decisions as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023 or a variety of other settings. How do those kind of bundles of bills get put together? And does that help at least partially resolve this issue of too many things getting stuck either in committee or across chambers?


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (49:40)

Yes, it can. There are myriad ways in which you could be a very influential legislator, as a thought leader, as a policy wonk, without a product. Example: when we were doing Covid relief, it was a very intellectually feral time. And we were getting on almost daily caucus calls – because we’re in the pandemic – trying to figure out, well, what do we need? And people were home, and they were reflecting on their experience with so many different things – nursing homes, hospitals. And one of my big things – because I come from local government – you got to help local governments right now. And by the way, they’re the ones that actually will implement what we pass. If we’re gonna pass vaccination subsidies, well, the federal government isn’t really going to be putting injections in arms – it’s going to be health clinics and local government level. So we gotta help them, and many of them are hurting. And you may remember Mitch McConnell, Republican leader of the Senate, said, “Let them file for bankruptcy.” He actually said that. Many other Republicans had no sympathy whatsoever to our state and local governments, particularly our local government. So I was very passionate about it. I brought it up every time we had a caucus conference call that it needed to be included in legislation. We ultimately got $350 billion for state and local governments that made a huge difference in their ability to maintain everything from childcare to transit to social services, health clinics – you name it. I was very proud of that. Now, it isn’t in my name, and only the people who are on those conference calls – maybe you’re aware of the fact – that I was that advocate. But it had a salubrious effect, and we were able to get it into the final bill. And it made a huge difference.


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (52:00)

So you know, there are many paths to influencing things. Sometimes, you know, I had a bill to electrify the postal fleet when I was a freshman in 2009, I introduced that bill. A freshman came along a number years later and asked me if I’d be willing to give him that bill – let him take the lead – and I did. Well, it was my idea. It was my legislation. Nobody else was talking about it fifteen years ago. There was an opportunity with stimulus money to actually make that investment. Unfortunately, the Postal Service didn’t want to. And now, of course, we are doing it. Well, I could take you through a thread that leads to me fifteen years ago. It’s the bill that we looked at doesn’t have my name on it. And I was happy to do that. I thought, “Okay, if you got the energy, enthusiasm and you’re willing to carry that bill, I’ll step back and be co-sponsor and let you take lead.” The key here is getting it done right, like, let’s try to get it done. So, you know, on the other hand, I’ve also worked with some people who were not particularly generous people, including committee chairs, who steal other people’s ideas and put their name on it. There’s not one thought in that bill that they’re responsible for, and they just stole it because they could. So, if you are happy to influence things…I work for Paul Sarbanes of Maryland on the Foreign Relations Committee – maybe one of the brightest people I’ve ever worked with. He didn’t like taking the spotlight. He didn’t like being the author of a lot of legislation. And yet he was so smart and so trusted as a go-to person for opinion that he was profoundly influential around here, even though he didn’t have that much legislation to his name. So there are people like that, too.


Alan Wiseman: (54:20)

Thanks for that. Congressman, we want to be mindful of your time. But that said, hopefully we could get one last question in.



Rep. Gerry Connolly: (54:27)



Alan Wiseman: (54:28)

Because the Center for Effective Lawmaking is actually housed at universities – Vanderbilt University and the University of Virginia, respectively – we’d be curious to know if you have any particular advice that you’d offer to college students who might be especially interested in working with or in Congress at some point in the future?


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (54:47)

Well, to me, the best way to get involved in the political process is to get involved at your local level. Ella Grasso, the late Governor of Connecticut, used to say, “bloom where you planted.” So wherever you find yourself – if you’re a student of Vanderbilt – get involved in that community, and get involved when you move back home. Don’t be a stranger to your own community; get involved, politically or civically. Volunteer, tutor, mentor, whatever you know you’re most comfortable with, because that can take you on paths that lead to politics. You see problems and you realize “I can’t fix it at this level. We’re gonna have to fix it at a political route,” and that’s not a bad thing – that’s a good thing. I think there are opportunities to intern in campaigns or in offices of elected officials. I’ve got interns both in my district office and up here in Capitol Hill, and you know, over fifteen years, I don’t know, I probably now have, you know, a couple hundred young people who are bright and promising and intern. Many of my staff started out as interns for me and we hired them because they were good. So you can get your feet wet and decide whether you like it or what you do and don’t like, or what you’re good at, and you can make a contribution – same thing. So, looking to volunteer, which, you know, covers a lot of ground, and maybe being more active by interning, or even ultimately working for a political figure or government – I think it’s a wonderful thing. I think public service is a wonderful thing myself. I’m motivated by that a lot more than I am about making money, because I think at the end of the day, living a purposeful life, what gives you meaning, what gets you up in the morning – I think it’s far more important than just making money. But that’s me.


Craig Volden: (57:13)

Really appreciate those insights, and hope that our students share them as well. Before we completely sign off, and thank you once again, is there anything else more that – you know, we’ve dominated the questions – is there anything else about effective lawmaking that you wish we would have asked you about, or other insights that you’d like to share with us?


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (57:35)

I think, as something that gets overlooked sometimes, and polity, is a passion. There has to be a fire somewhere in your body, your psyche, that fuels you. I don’t mean some rigid, pathological passion. But like, in my case, I grew up as a student in the Civil Rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement, and those two things really have been formative for me for the rest of my life. They gave me huge insights into how things work or don’t work. They gave me huge insights into how skewed justice was in America that needed to be addressed – the right of freedom to express yourself, protest, respecting other points of view. All of that came from those experiences and inform me to this very day. And I have a passion about it. When I saw what happened to George Floyd, it reminded me of the clubbing of anti-war protest just because they dared to exercise their American right to be heard and dissent. I had a visceral reaction to it because it brought me back to the 60s and Chicago where I was. And so, I think passion can be…in fact, I would argue it’s a necessary ingredient, if you’re going to play this role long-term, because people pick up on it. Inauthenticity, by definition, lacks any real passion for anything – it’s all a mask. And we have a lot of that, unfortunately, in public life. But having genuine passions that motivate you to effectuate change and make things better – I know that sounds a little Pollyannish, but for me it’s very real. That’s what I’m trying to do every day and I…


Craig Volden: (59:54)

And presumably helps with that persistence that you were talking about before.


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (59:56)

That’s right, that’s right. And so people with a passion, I hope they’ll think about public life. We need more of it.


Craig Volden: (01:00:03)

Thank you so much. Great place to end. And we really appreciate your public service as well as your time with us tonight.


Rep. Gerry Connolly: (01:00:11)

Thank you both.


Alan Wiseman: (01:00:12)

Thanks so much for your time, Congressman. Really appreciate it.

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