Do Nice Guys Run for Congress?

For two decades, Don Manzullo represented the people of Illinois’ 16th Congressional District. His new memoir, “Do Nice Guys Run for Congress?” recounts his experiences of serving in Washington while remaining true to democracy, his faith and the people of northern Illinois. In these selected excerpts, he recalls winning the election, reaching across the aisle for the common good, and how our nation can improve its political discourse.

When I announced I was running for Congress in the March 1990 Republican primary, I was promptly sued by my own party to keep me off the ballot. The party leaders must have mused, “Who is this obscure, country lawyer who has the temerity to run for Congress against our party-chosen candidate?” They failed in that lawsuit.

Just because my first name is the same as Don Quixote did not mean I was charging windmills or was delusional. I had no money, little name recognition, no experience in politics, nothing more than a vision that I thought I would be a good congressman. And most of all, many of my colleagues believed that I was “too nice a guy” to seriously consider running for Congress.

I lost the first election, and I ran again in the March 1992 primary. The party still thought I was an imaginary person created by Cervantes. When we bested the establishment by winning that second primary, the party came to a quick conclusion that my name was not Don Quixote but Don Manzullo. Our election team – comprised of untested and underpaid staff – pulled off two of the biggest upsets of the election season. I won the primary, and then in the general election in November 1992, I unseated an incumbent, one of the few challengers who beat incumbents nationwide that year. With all due respect to my colleagues’ admonitions that I was too nice a guy to get involved in politics, there I was: a member of Congress who had one clear mission: to work for my constituents, be true to my values and faith, work with my colleagues from both sides of the aisle, not become mired in partisanship and ad hominem attacks, and live up to the oath that I took to uphold the U.S. Constitution.

★ ★ ★

Jan. 3, 1993, was swearing-in day. I took my new, official congressional pin and proudly attached it to my lapel. Freda and Mom sat in the gallery. The kids were with me on the Floor.

We had some preliminary votes, and then came the moment when we were asked to stand, raise our right hands, and take the oath of office.

I, Donald Manzullo, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

I never made it through any of the 10 swearing-in ceremonies without breaking into tears. The honor of serving over 600,000 people is overwhelming. (In subsequent swearing-in ceremonies, my daughter Katie would always look at me as the oaths were being administered so she could observe firsthand Dad’s tearful response.) Just after the oath is administered, the Speaker says, “Congratulations, you are now members of Congress!” When I heard those words, my life passed before me: In a whirlwind, an obscure, country lawyer had become a Member of Congress. A 10-year-old’s dream of becoming a Member of Congress had been fulfilled!

★ ★ ★

Congress is notorious for passing well-intentioned laws without anticipating their full impact. The 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act created a mandatory Employee Trip Reduction (ETR) program for “non-attainment” metropolitan areas. A geographical area was classified as a non-attainment if the quality of the air fell below a particular standard for a set period. To decrease pollution from vehicles, this program required more commuters to reach their workplace by means other than a car containing only one person: That mandate was called the Employee Commute Option (ECO).

The law mandated businesses, local governments, and schools with more than 100 employees to establish a program so that one-quarter of the entity’s employees either carpooled, used public transportation, walked, or biked to work. Hefty fines awaited. McHenry County is essentially rural, with scattered cities and villages of between 250 and 40,000 people. Very few employees live near each other so they could carpool, and there was no public transit system. The county came under the mandate because it is on top of Cook County and is considered part of the Chicago metropolitan area for EPA purposes. Chicago’s unclean air drifts north to McHenry County.

If a school had at least 100 employees (as is typical for most high schools), the teachers and staff had to comply with the mandate, but the students did not because they were not considered employees. To visualize the inflexibility of the mandate, McHenry County residents would quip that a student driving to school could pick up his teacher who was hitchhiking to work!

I was contacted by Vince Foglia and Paul Hills, founders of Sage Products, a medical products manufacturer in McHenry County. They and numerous other employers were really upset about this new law. To avoid the harsh fines, some employers were even planning on having their employees use the parking lot of a facility across the street and vice versa because legally the employees would not be driving to their employment destination. Foglia and Hills arranged several meetings with other employers, chambers of commerce, the local development association and schools. I remember in one meeting Vince said, “Don, I want you to fix this law.”

Here I was, a freshman Member of Congress, and my first job was to amend the massive and highly political Clean Air Act, a difficult case in any setting, especially when the Republicans were in the minority. As a lawyer my job was to have my clients comply with the law; now, I had the task to change the law. I asked Congressman Denny Hastert, later to become the Speaker of the House, to help me because he was on the committee having legislative authority over the law. He introduced me to Congressman John Dingell, the powerful chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. I explained the issue to him, and he roared, “I knew that law would cause trouble someday.” At least I had a sympathizer. He wanted me to talk to Henry Waxman, whose subcommittee had jurisdiction over the issue.

I returned from the Floor to my office excited that I now had identified a champion who also had problems with the law. I shared with my staff what had just happened, and I remember the astonished looks from Kurt Markva, my legislative assistant on environmental issues, and Phil Eskeland, my legislative director, both having solid Capitol Hill experience. I don’t know which one said something like, “You want us to change the Clean Air Act? That means you need Congressman Henry Waxman’s consent.” They stared at me incredulously. What did I know about Congress at this point?

★ ★ ★

In 1995 after the Republicans took control of Congress, President Bill Clinton signed my bill – mine and Henry Waxman’s – into law. Each year the law saves companies, municipalities and educational institutions $1.2 to $1.4 billion in compliance costs. The bill was one of the first passed under an expedited procedure, which was part of the Contract for America, for considering consensus legislation dealing with fixing or repealing laws. Would the bill have passed if the Democrats had maintained control of the House and Senate after the 1994 midterm elections? I believe it would have because of the broad bipartisan support we had built.

★ ★ ★

I arrived in my office a little late on the morning of July 19, 2005, and found my staff in a state of near panic. A bill called the East Asia Security Act was in the process of being voted on in a procedure called “Suspension of the Rule,” an expedited way to pass noncontroversial bills such as the naming of post offices, but it requires a two-thirds as opposed to a simple majority to pass. This bill came out of the Foreign Affairs Committee with little notice. I saw a fax sent by the Electronics Industries Alliance, the Coalition for Employment through Exports, and half a dozen aerospace manufacturers – including United Technologies, located in my district – pleading for a Nay vote because the bill to prevent Chinese military from getting cutting-edge U.S. technology was so broad that it would have been a major hindrance to sales of U.S., non-sensitive, manufactured products to China and possibly many other countries.

I took the fax, saved just the top, which listed the companies and trade groups in opposition, pasted it to a blank sheet of paper, and typed below it something to the effect of “Dear Colleagues, this bill will destroy thousands of jobs and not help national security. The companies and organizations listed above all oppose the bill.” I made as many copies as possible in the office, looked at the TV monitor, and saw a huge majority already voting in favor of the bill.

I ran to the Floor, gave one copy to a page, and asked him to make a hundred more and give them to me on the Floor, where 300 Members of 435 had already voted Yea. I shouted at my Republican colleague Jim Kolbe, gave him copies of my handout, and said, “Go pass these out; we have to reverse this vote.” I ran over to the Democratic side and approached Norm Dicks, Zoe Lofgren, Anna Eshoo, and others – all of whom had major aerospace interests in their districts – shouting the same thing. I told these Members to go to the doors where Members enter the Floor and give them the fliers. Armed with the fliers, we went to other Members, gave them the handouts, and implored them to vote Nay or change their votes from Yea to Nay.

The Hill reported on the story:

The trade organizations were watching the bill pass handedly, and then, the most bizarre turnaround on the House floor in years was set in motion. Six lawmakers, some toting handmade fliers, started lobbying hard against the export-sanctions bill. And one by one, a trickle turning to a flood, sixty-three members flipped their votes …None of them (the trade organizations and aerospace companies) could have predicted that Manzullo would cut out their coalition letterhead for a makeshift flier that members perused as the vote switching picked up speed. [The newspaper quoted Storme Street, lobbyist for the Electronics Industries Alliance.] “I was talking to some staff in offices that weren’t involved, and they said it was one of the most confusing events they’d ever witnessed. It happened – literally – in 20 minutes. There aren’t many times when members don’t know whether they’re voting up or down.”

I knew what was happening. The official voting clock had ended at 15 minutes, but the voting time did not end because there were scores of Members in a line before the Speaker’s dais with red (Nay) cards in their hands, waiting to change their votes from Yea to Nay. Speaker Hastert had taken over the presiding chair from Ray LaHood, waiting for this presumably noncontroversial bill to pass before he was to lead the House in a moment of silence to honor the victims of an attack by terrorists in England. He recognized I was the leader of this massive vote-change and asked Ray to have me come to the Speaker’s chair. “What’s going here?” he asked. I replied, “These are all Members who voted wrong initially but now have the right information and are changing their votes. This is beautiful!” Even a couple of the bill’s cosponsors, Katherine Harris of Florida, and Ted Poe of Texas, had taken red cards and switched their votes from Yea to Nay.

That was a wild day on the Floor and indicative of how poorly worded legislation could have easily passed. Periodically, legislation will pass without a full study of the consequences. In this case it could have created chaos in our export system and threatened tens of thousands of American jobs.

There is also a lesson about the place of so-called “special interest” groups in trying to influence a vote in Congress. Often, they can be of great assistance. Here, we were contacted by several trade associations and aerospace companies, which were legitimately concerned about loss of business opportunities and resultant massive job losses in our home congressional districts.

★ ★ ★

I discovered families of small-business owners were being discriminated against in requesting student aid on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application. I had no problem with the government asking for income and other assets of parents of students. But there was a question on the form that asked for the parents’ net worth of their family businesses, except farmers. Farmers were exempted because it has always been common knowledge that they have to own equipment and land totaling astronomical amounts of money just to earn a modest income. It is the same problem for other small-business owners who must own huge amounts of machinery and other assets. However, they had to report the net worth of their business assets, and that resulted in their children being passed over for financial aid.

I requested an official from the Department of Education stop by my office. I explained the problem to him, he agreed with me, and within a short period of time the FAFSA form was amended to exempt reporting of assets of all businesses with 100 or fewer full-time employees.

★ ★ ★

We received hundreds of letters from small manufacturers begging us to stop President George W. Bush’s steel tariffs because their cost for domestic steel had gone up dramatically, or the types of steel they were using were simply not manufactured in the United States but were still subject to the new tariffs. We worked with the United States Trade representative, Ambassador Bob Zoellick and the Undersecretary for International Trade at the Department of Commerce, pleading for relief from these extraordinary price hikes (which I called gouging) and requesting exemptions for tariffs on types of steel and alloys not manufactured in the U.S.

U.S. steel companies and national offices of the labor unions fought us every step of the way, arguing that the purpose of the tariffs was to keep domestic U.S. production afloat while they reorganized through higher prices, and that steel not manufactured in the U.S. could be manufactured here if the steel companies had enough orders. The government’s position was that the purpose of the tariffs was in fact to drive up the price of domestic steel to give the U.S. steel producers time to restructure, and, therefore, complaints that the steel users had to pay more went for naught. We succeeded on many requests, however, to remove tariffs on types of steel not manufactured in the United States.

One case epitomizes the fallacy of these tariffs. A northern Illinois company used high-tension steel wire in manufacturing aerosol cans. This company could only source the specialty-steel wire it needed from Sweden, one of the costliest places in the world to do business. It took a credible threat to relocate all production to Sweden – which would have resulted in the loss of over 100 U.S. jobs and in importing the finished product from Sweden at zero tariffs – that finally convinced the USTR and Commerce to grant this company an exemption from the higher tariffs.

★ ★ ★

The truth is that lack of civility in politics and in America is nothing new. From the closing down of debate in the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to today’s culture of censuring those with opposing viewpoints, civility, or lack thereof, continues to be an issue.

Fortunately, the days of Members of Congress carrying knives and guns and assaulting each other have been gone for some time. But verbal assaults through in-person attacks and social media have replaced physical attacks.

Eager to lower the temperature in today’s political world, the Institute for Civility in Government had to officially define civility.

But how do we lower the levels of hostility and labor for civility?

I have struggled with this issue my entire life. The good news is that I believe we can make a difference, and here is how:

We should recognize each person, like a snowflake, is a unique creature, whether you believe each individual is created by God (Psalm 139), was hatched, appeared spontaneously or in some other manner. No one before had, now has, or in the future will have, your DNA, fingerprints, voiceprint, brainwaves, iris and retina, ear shape or written signature. If each of us is unique, then everybody has a purpose and, therefore, a destiny. Recognizing this upfront makes us all more patient and respectful with each other.

Be the first to admit your error and apologize when you offend somebody, make a mistake, or say something incorrectly or inappropriately. Apologizing, even if under the circumstances your action was innocent and correct, helps heal a breach. I have blown it too many times, usually occurring during periods of stress or lack of sleep. I have tried, but I know there are people out there of whom I am not aware I offended, or to whom I failed to apologize or extended a weak apology. Resolve to do the best you can in a situation and do better in the next. Life is a process! Do not dwell on living your life through a rear-view mirror. You cannot make the world reverse course.

Broaden your perspective in life. Learn new things and meet new people. I do not care how busy you are: This is important because by expanding your parameters you understand better how others think. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now lists loneliness as a public health hazard. Even as a busy congressman, I always worked at meeting new people and learning new topics. I continually work at having an inquisitive mind.

Seek common ground on a problem, and then agree to disagree on the rest. The common ground serves as healing whether you realize it or not. Seeking common ground even when no problem exists is therapeutic and makes us handle more adroitly a problem when one arises. For example, in Congress we had the Italian-American caucus: their struggles, and the superiority of each Member’s mother’s spaghetti sauce were sufficient to make us think of where we came from and how we should treat each other. The most significant driver of incivility in Congress today is that Members simply do not take the time or have the opportunity to get to know each other.

Become better not bitter in handling disappointments, no matter how unfairly you were treated by an individual or by circumstances. Do not let anybody tell you that you cannot succeed. Bitterness begets strife. I had plenty of opportunity to become bitter after my March 2012 primary election defeat, but I had resolved in my heart – even before election day – that was not going to happen, because bitterness leads to a dead-end street.

Find time to rest your mind and lower your level of stress, so you think more clearly, and, therefore, act and respond more appropriately. Sometimes, you have to walk away from a situation and hand the problem over to someone else. That happened to me when the stress of keeping GITMO out of the U.S. so overwhelmed me that my staff intervened and helped me pass the lead in that issue to other members of Congress.

These principles are not magical, but as a whole they prepare us before, during, and after a situation (in many cases) to at least try to be civil. Children are watching. The nation is watching. Just look at political figures with whom you may not agree on any issue, but their civility in presentation reduces the level of anxiety that naturally arises when people are confronted with different views. And differing views do not mean you cannot be strong in your convictions and beliefs. As I have tried to demonstrate, one can be very partisan (strongly adhering to his or her views) yet can also be very civil.

My hope is – by being civil to one another – at the end of the day and of life we are able to say, “A life well lived.”

These excerpts are from “Do Nice Guys Run for Congress? How an Obscure, Country Lawyer Kept his Faith, Beat the Establishment, and Survived Twenty Years in Congress” by Former U.S. Congressman Don Manzullo, published by Westbow Press.