Mind you, being a member of Congress is a job. But it is a unique job, quite unlike any other one may pursue.
When you think about the process of getting a job, you tend to think about the application, the interview, the skills test, the background check and the hiring decision. However, the job of “member of Congress” sheds an odd light on these job-seeking phases.
First, the application. Basically, this consists of deciding to run for office and filling out the necessary paperwork, after you’ve already asked people for money to fund your campaign. (Of course, you can’t tell the people who give you money that you will do specific things in office for them, but it’s understood that their interests will be addressed. That’s why they’re giving their money to you and not the other guy.)
Next, the skills test. Some businesses require an interview before testing, but the job of “member of Congress” always puts the test before the interview. The skills test is your campaign. Running an “effective” campaign proves that you can make laws that the entire country will have to obey. (I don’t know how or why. It just does.)
One of the secrets behind running an effective campaign is spending as little money as possible but as much money as necessary. To achieve this balance, you want to hire a motivated, talented and energetic staff, and then pay them nothing. Or next to nothing. You need volunteers — usually young, inexperienced students or older, savvy partisans. (Rule of thumb: The older the volunteers, the more you have to pay them — except if they are really partisan. Then they’ll pay you.)
In campaigning, you will at some point have to accost people on the street, leave pamphlets stuck in their doors and call their homes between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. And you know how much we like to be accosted on the street, remove pamphlets from our doors and receive calls from strangers between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. It’s a winning strategy.
As in other job-seeking scenarios, you need to tell your would-be employers what you would do in the job and why you think you would be a good hire. But unlike other job-seeking scenarios, you also need to say why someone else who wants the job would be bad. And not just bad, but horrendous, disastrous, dangerous, heinous. I’m talking Apocalypse Now.
Next, the background check. Some businesses hire investigative specialists to probe the backgrounds of prospective hires. They rely on criminal records, education records, business records, military records and other official documents that are relevant to what you have done as an adult.
For the job of “member of Congress,” the background check is conducted mostly by the media, who will examine everything you have said or written — and everything anyone has ever said or written about you — since you were born. And don’t worry about “relevance”: all information that is about you or that remotely involves you is relevant. (“So in kindergarten, you wanted to be a fireman, but now you want to be a congressman. Why has your position changed?”) What’s more, a good deal of the information revealed in the background check is produced by other applicants for the job. Go figure.
(To be sure, the application, skills test and background check are ongoing phases in seeking the job of “member of Congress.” You have to keep asking for money, running an “effective” campaign and undergoing the background check. Picture a destitute marathoner being chased by an overzealous proctologist. You are that marathoner. Run, Forrest! Run!)
Next, the interview. This is the debate. Not every congressional race has a debate, but nearly all of them do. As in any interview situation, you want to present a positive, confident and authoritative image. You want to appear well-informed but not so well-informed that you appear to be a know-it-all. (We don’t like know-it-alls.) You also want any other job applicants to appear stupid, depraved, insane and shy. Tricky, but it can be done.
Then, the hiring decision — Election Day. The thing about Election Day is that — even though you have raised plenty of money, run an effective campaign, passed the background check and held your own in the debate — you could still lose the job just because people like some other job applicant. In that case, the best you can hope for is a recount.