From the State House to Capitol Hill

It’s no secret that state leaders make good national leaders. Numerous presidents and members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate have served in governor’s offices and state legislatures, as well as other executive branch offices, before moving on to Capitol Hill. Three former state leaders—all of whom are alumni of The Council of State Governments’ Henry Toll Fellowship Program and who are completing their freshmen terms in Congress—share lessons they took with them from their service in state capitols and what they are learning in the halls of the U.S. Capitol.

Lessons from the Statehouse Bipartisanship Has to Start Somewhere
U.S. Rep. John Carney
Delaware | Former Delaware Lieutenant Governor | 2002 Toll Fellow

In Delaware, we have a tradition called Return Day. The Democratic and Republican candidates for statewide office—the winners and the losers—gather together on the Thursday after Election Day. They ride together in carriages through the streets of Georgetown, Del., and at the end of the day, officially end the campaign season by literally burying a hatchet in the sand.

Delaware’s Democrats and Republicans have their different points of view and often disagree about how to address the challenges facing the state. But Return Day signifies that it’s time to move on from the campaigns and continue with the business of serving Delawareans.

Having spent most of my career in state and local government, including two terms as Delaware’s lieutenant governor, this model of bipartisanship and cooperation is how I learned to conduct business.

This approach was also the foundation of my campaign in 2010 to become Delaware’s lone member of the U.S. House of Representatives. I campaigned hard on the issues and promised Delawareans I would represent them by working in a bipartisan way to strengthen the economy, create jobs and put the country back on the right track.

I went to Capitol Hill nearly two years ago to work with Democrats and Republicans on the important issues affecting our nation. I soon found out that the partisanship in Washington is overwhelming. Both parties speaking in talking points. Each side working only with themselves. Equating compromise with selling out.

After several frustrating months, I found colleagues from both parties who, like me, were interested in moving beyond politics to solve the tremendous challenges facing the nation. We began meeting over breakfast a few times a month, and we quickly learned that while we disagree on many issues, we agree on a host of others.

Over time, the group has grown to include 14 members divided equally between Democrats and Republicans. We hold regular meetings to catch up, talk policy and develop legislation. In the 112th Congress, the group has proposed bills that address issues critical to the nation’s economic recovery—incentivizing domestic business expansion, getting people back to work, and finding a productive and responsible way to work through the housing crisis.

A group of 14 members out of 435 is small. But as I learned throughout my 20-year career of public service in Delaware, whether it’s sitting down for a meeting with someone or riding in a parade with them, bipartisanship has to start somewhere.

Members of Congress can disagree on the issues. In fact, American greatness is rooted in the idea that disagreement is the foundation of a strong and robust political system. But at the end of the day, we must all agree that progress is more important than politics. It’s time to bury the hatchet and come together as Americans to put forth smart solutions that move our nation forward.

Lessons on Legislative Skills What Works in State Senate Can
Work in Congress

U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa
Hawaii | Former Hawaii Senate President | 2000 Toll Fellow

I was in my second year as a Hawaii state senator when I was selected to represent Hawaii as a Toll Fellow. Today, I am in my second year as a member of Congress representing Hawaii’s First Congressional District.

During the intervening 10 years, I served as the vice president of the Hawaii State Senate, vice-chair of its Ways and Means Committee, chair of the Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee, majority leader of the Senate and, for my last four years in state office, as president of the Senate. I was honored to be the first woman to lead either chamber of the Hawaii State Legislature and the first Asian-American woman in the nation to preside over a state legislative body.

Based on these experiences, I can say that I have found few significant differences between serving in the Hawaii State Capitol and the Halls of Congress.

The Congress of the United States is the ultimate legislature in the world. The issues we vote on and the policies we set impact everyone and everything. It is a daunting responsibility. Yet, it is the experience I gained as a state legislator that has been the foundation that prepared me for this task.

I believe it is up to each elected official to define what kind of legislator she or he becomes. How one studies, addresses and decides on issues is fundamental to each individual. As a former practicing attorney, the best analogy I can come up with is a law degree. I have told many young men and women considering legal careers that, in my opinion, the value of law school is that it does not claim to teach you all the answers; it teaches you how to think, how to analyze and how to discern the answers yourself.

Similarly, anyone who has been fortunate enough to have served as a state legislator—and has used that experience wisely—will have had the opportunity to develop a set of skills that will assist in analyzing the most complex of issues. Whether a member of Congress wishes to take on those complex issues in-depth, however, remains an individual choice.

This is not to imply that the issues a legislator faces on the state level are any less important than those we encounter in Congress. To our constituents, the final arbiters of our performance, it may be that the issues facing a state legislator are more relevant and more immediate. For most, local bread-and-butter issues are the most pressing.

The privilege of serving in the United States Congress has provided me with an opportunity to consider issues with worldwide consequences, but I never forget that I serve people in Hawaii, just as I did in the Hawaii State Senate. I must continually win their trust and earn the belief that I am truly representing them.

Being a good legislator should not depend on the body one is honored to serve in. It is instead the product of solid experience, good skills and effective service.

Lessons from A First Term in Congress Partisanship and Gridlock May be
What Founders Intended

U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita
Indiana | Former Indiana Secretary of State | 2005 Toll Fellow

When I was elected to Congress in 2010 after serving eight years as Indiana’s secretary of state, I knew I was in for a big change. But I didn’t realize how big that change would be. Here are a few observations I’ve made in my time here, and what I think these things mean for our republic:

  • As secretary of state, I was head of several executive branch agencies. Whenever we needed something done, it was easy to just direct people to act. Now, when I go to the House floor and persuade and cajole fellow members, someone else stands up right after me and does the same thing. It’s a lot of theater, and consequently, not much gets done by direct order. Perhaps I’m observing no more than what the Founders intended when they established our different branches of government.


  • There is a great deal of partisanship and gridlock in Congress, which is frustrating to many Americans outside of Washington. In many ways, this is a reflection of the way our Founders intended our system to work—slowly and sloppily, with each member representing the concerns of his or her district. But it’s also true that many people here are living for partisan fights, and not for the future of our republic. Ultimately, Congress reflects the American people, and we won’t be able to reach meaningful compromise in Washington until we decide what we’re going to be as a country.


  • Perhaps even more frightening than the $16 trillion debt we’re passing on to our children and grandchildren is a federal government that has outgrown the limits our Founders intended. Through our Red Tape Rollback program, my office is working to help businesses and individuals fight back against harmful government regulations. I’ve learned every day just how exhausting it is to do battle with an army of bureaucrats. Too much lawmaking authority has been given to folks who have not been directly elected by the people.


  • In the past, statesmanship was defined as leaders from both parties agreeing to pass legislation that included both sides’ preferred policies, and then passing the bill on to our kids. But we can no longer afford that old definition. Keeping the republic our Founders entrusted to us will require a new definition of what a statesman is—not someone who looks merely across the aisle, but across the generations.


  • Because of the year-to-year budgeting process, things move way too fast. The federal government simply isn’t that important. We should slow things down by moving to a two-year budgeting system, with appropriations in the off years. When I was secretary of state, Indiana had a two-year cycle, and we were able to live within our means for two years at a time.


  • Capitol Hill really does seem like it’s run by 26-year-olds, with so many young staffers in positions of influence. They bring a great deal of energy to the process and, for the most part, give me many reasons to be optimistic about the future of our republic.

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