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From the classroom to the Hill and back

January 6, 2011

“The best policy in the world isn’t going anywhere if it’s not supported by human relationships based on repeated interactions. By the same token, the worst policy in the world can move quickly if there are strong social networks behind it.” 

Welling Hall is the Plowshares Professor of Peace Studies at Earlham College, a Quaker school in Richmond, Indiana. After 25 years in academia, she decided to get more hands-on political experience by taking a fellowship in Congressman Keith Ellison’s office.  Funded by the American Political Science Association, the Congressional Fellowship Program was created to enhance public understanding of the legislative process.  I interviewed her to find out what she learned along the way.

Life on the Hill

Hall worked for Ellison in the House of Representatives from December 2009 to August 2010. A Democratic representative from Minneapolis, Ellison is the first Muslim to be elected to Congress and chairs the Progressive Caucus. He was recognized by the Nation magazine as the most valuable member of the House of Representatives for 2010.  Hall found his office to be exciting and dynamic.

Like many congressional staff, Hall’s orientation to her new job was somewhat sink or swim. Due to limited staffing most congressional aides have very broad portfolios, and she soon found herself the responsible for legislation related to Foreign Policy, Immigration, Education, Judiciary, and the Arts. She did everything from meeting with constituents to writing speeches and talking points, drafting legislation, organizing meetings, communicating with Administration officials, attending hearings—“basically whatever needed to be done.”

“At the beginning I felt not too different from most other staff members in that I felt a little lost—there’s a great deal of turnover,” said Hall. However she quickly adapted to the rapid pace of Congressional offices.  On some days she would be told in the morning that she needed to prepare talking points for an afternoon hearing on a bill, including whether Ellison should support or oppose it.

“…I came to realize that Congressional time is sort of like Narnia time. You never know what is going to be moving really fast or really slow—but when it’s going it’s going. Sometimes I called respected constituents or NGOs in search of immediate information, and it mattered a lot whether I got it!”

 Politics Depends on Relationships

As a political science professor Hall had spent much of her professional life studying how to design the best policies.  After spending some time trying to get these policies passed, she was particularly struck by how much of politics is personal relationships, and grew to admire Ellison’s emotional intelligence and ability to connect with people in a genuine way.

“The best policy in the world isn’t going anywhere if it’s not supported by human relationships based on repeated interactions. By the same token, the worst policy in the world can move quickly if there are strong social networks behind it.”  
 

Working on the Hill requires a remarkable combination of patience and flexibility, but also assertiveness and determination.  Hall saw over time that one needs to be genuinely curious about the perspectives of others in order to reach a compromise.  In this way, she says, Quaker values have a place in Congress—“the conviction that every person has some access to the truth is a way of comprehending how others can hold widely different opinions.”

Loud and Clear: Let Congress Hear Your Message
Welling communicated with many constituents during her time in the House, and learned what strategies can help our messages have the most impact.

  • Be strategic about how you work with staff.
    Call the office to find out who is responsible for your issue area.  Try to direct your communications and meetings towards this person, and maintain a positive relationship with him or her.
  • Don’t neglect the district offices.
    Each member of Congress has a budget to hire 18 staff, and Ellison divided them equally between Washington and his home district. Staff at the district office often have more time available for lobby visits and can have just as much influence. 
  • In letters and emails, let them know who you are and why you care.
    Members of Congress receive an average of 4000 communications per week, and staff can easily identify automatically-generated messages. It doesn’t matter whether the message is hand-written or email—but it is very important that you distinguish yourself as an individual. Provide personal details, write in your own words, and speak from personal experience as much as possible.
One Comment leave one →
  1. Matt Southworth permalink
    January 7, 2011 4:09 pm

    Like.

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