Hill Day. One of the fundamental reasons Close Up exists is for this epic moment, this controlled collision between students and legislatures. As it so often goes, this week’s Hill Day was one of the most vindicating experiences for program instructors. It didn’t hurt that there was an historical case being heard at the Supreme Court, nor that the committee hearings were relatively light for a day so near Congress’s recess.
I was assigned three meetings on the Senate side of Capitol Hill to attend. In this phase we program instructors are very much in the background, just facilitating the meetings, providing directions or suggestions, answering logistical questions, helping lost school groups find their way, and occasionally suggesting that a student with a question that cannot be answered take a business card to follow up. Minnesotans met with Senator Al Franken (D) outside his office following his constituents breakfast. He then took questions and explained on which committees he served, what Hill responsibilities he had, the national issues he is plugging or fighting, the state issues that he is supporting in Washington, the constituent groups with whom he meets, and bills or amendments his staff is drafting. Each school got a few moments with him, including one of the schools from my hotel who got hung up in the security lines and arrived late.
The next meeting I had was with Michigan Senator Carl Levin (D). He met with students in person outside the committee room he for which he is chair in the Russell office building. He, too, discussed the state issues for which he is advocating in Washington–Asian carp in the Great Lakes, for example, is a big concern for both Michigan and Minnesota. Senator Levin further elaborated on some of the issues related to energy and oil speculation that he has been working on. He came from the Senate floor to meet with students and rushed off (late) to get to a meeting he was suppose to be leading after his opening remarks and answering a handful of the students’ questions. His staffer continued the meeting, even handing out his business card to a student who asked a question he could not answer (I did not hear the question, sadly, otherwise I would brag about it).
While it was a little breezy and bit loud and busy on the steps, the small contingent of Alaskan students nonetheless had a pretty intimate meeting with both of their senators, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R) and Senator Mark Begich (D). While they waited for them to arrive, a nearby press conference was held by the Democratic leadership regarding the Supreme Court case being argued in the background. Once the senators arrived the questions began. It was a slow start, but questions about oil and energy, transportation costs, and the health care law soon followed. The two senators spoke to students for about 20 minutes, if not longer, and urged students to be ambassadors for the state and its issues that are relevant to the national stage.
Here is the most important take-away:
Each of the senators took the students seriously as constituents; they did not talk down to the students; they did not trivialize their presence with softball, time-sucking questions about the tourist sites in town that they might have visited; they did not expect to lecture, but anticipated good policy questions and answered them without talking down or patronizing them; they fielded questions about the state issues that were relevant on the national stage that they were working on for the benefit of their state and constituents.
Students have been encouraged all week to take agency, to increase their knowledge and to ask questions. Beyond that, they have been given the opportunity to express themselves, to take the lead, and to influence their peers and decision-makers–especially those working on Capitol Hill. They have walked the halls of power in America’s democracy and owned them–as is every citizen’s right–sitting in on committee meetings, hearings, Senate and Congressional floor debates, and Supreme Court arguments and asking questions of those who represent them. If they can do this, surely, the halls of power and authority at home are small potatoes: student councils, school boards, city councils, state governments, etc. While each school was photographed with their senator, it is to be hoped that it is merely a reminder of their agency and not a mere picture of a brief encounter during their high school days.