Nov. 16, 2017

Batten Students’ Experience on Capitol Hill Sheds Light on Realities in Policymaking

The road from Batten’s Garrett Hall to the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington D.C. takes just a few hours. But students arriving in the capitol quickly learn that the environment is far removed from what they’ve experienced on Grounds.

Few workplaces, for instance, are as ornate, majestic, and intimidating as the Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing Room in the Russell Building. For 26 second-year MPP students, their Washington, D.C. experience earlier this month began in that storied meeting space.

“It does empower our current students to visualize how quickly they can get from the Batten School to a responsible policymaking job in Congress,” said Gerald Warburg, Professor of Practice of Public Policy and the guide for the meeting with legislators and staff members. “No day in the classroom can make that point more viscerally than meeting with the alums (at work on Capitol Hill) and having them host us up there.”

(photo by Sam Levitan)

Add to that the fact that one of the hosts of the event was recent Batten graduate Cara Mumford, who finished her master’s degree last semester and is a staff assistant on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Its chair is the veteran Arizona Republican John McCain.

“I’m very lucky,” Mumford said of her position. Batten taught her to “frame an issue in a certain way, to interact with people so that the larger message can be heard, and to communicate effectively with the staff, the public, and the various congressional members. Our Batten classes do a really good job of exposing students to that type of environment, especially when they bring students up for the Hill visit.”

“They get to meet with the representatives and senators themselves,” as well as staff members, “and they can get the experience of how to approach an issue, based on whom you’re talking to. National defense is important to everyone—everybody has a vested interest in it—yet there is the challenge of learning to how communicate between the (military) services effectively, learning how to communicate among the other members of the committee. My time at Batten helped to prepare me for that.”

For one of this year’s students, West Connors, the Hill experience came just a few months after an internship for Virginia senator Mark Warner.

“Since I’d worked on the Hill, I was excited to go back. It’s also where I want to work next year,” said Connors, from Fairfax Station, Va. The visit, part of Batten’s Congress 101: Leadership Strategies course, “was a really excellent experience.”

Connors especially appreciated the meetings with Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, the former Democratic Vice Presidential nominee, and his chief of staff, Mike Henry.

“I’d never been in Sen. Kaine’s office,” said Connors, who appreciated “getting a personal look at his office by having an hour to meet with his chief of staff, and then another hour with him (Kaine), a national figure.

Students with Sen. Kaine (photo by Sam Levitan)

“It was remarkable to get that personal one-on-one time with members and senators.”

The students also met with four members of Congress: Republicans Tom Garrett Jr. and Rob Wittman, and Democrats Gerry Connolly and Don Beyer. Congressman Dave Brat, a Republican, had to miss a scheduled meeting due to back-to-back House floor votes.

“It was excellent to see two Republicans and two Democrats, and get perspectives from both,” Connors said.

Such scheduling is intentional, Warburg said. “We feel very strongly about making sure a number of different political persuasions are heard in our classrooms. We are trying to empower students to do fact based policy analysis, then articulate their own positions, their own political views, and their own values and ideals.”

Rep. Rob Wittman (photo by Sam Levitan)

Adding to the immediacy of the students’ experience on Capitol Hill was the release of the Republican Hill leadership’s new proposal for sweeping tax reform while they were meeting with Members. Students were able to quiz members on their hopes and concerns even as details emerged real time.  The students saw how legislators—and their staffs—respond quickly to breaking news. Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia was called away to a press conference to discuss the Republican proposal, so his chief of staff and legislative director met with the students instead.

One student, Emily Mooney, noted “the reveal of the tax reform plan was momentous,” but said that her “evaluation of the plan awaits details.”

Mooney, of Ashburn, Va. said she is “an ardent supporter of criminal justice reform,” and has worked as an advocate for Prison Fellowship, founded by the late Charles Colson.

“In my perspective, this means fighting for better solutions for helping the often forgotten and traumatized young people in our juvenile justice system. I believe strongly in redemption and giving people second chances. Advocacy organizations help tell these stories, gather facts, and harness the voice of the American public.

“I think advocacy organizations play a vital role in shaping public policy, particularly in representing the interests of those who do not have the power, prestige, money, or time to make their voice heard.”

Another advocate for criminal justice reform is Batten graduate Connor Maxwell, who met with the students when they began their visit. He works for the Center for American Progress.

“As a research associate, I research, write, and engage with the media and coalition members on a wide range of domestic policy issues impacting marginalized communities. This includes, but is not limited to voting rights, criminal justice, healthcare, and higher education,” Maxwell said.

He has had past experience working on criminal justice and civil rights issues through internships at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, the ACLU, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. And he cited his service as Graduate Teaching Assistant for Warburg and Batten’s Craig Volden, Professor of Public Policy and Politics and Director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking.

Like Mumford, Maxwell graduated last semester and benefitted from the Washington, D.C. education a year ago.

“This is a valuable experience for anyone interested in working on federal policy; it provides a window into the world of legislating,” Maxwell said.

“During my class visit to Congress last year when I was a Batten student, I found the congressmen and senators surprisingly honest and open to tough questions. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to learn as much as you can about the tough issues of the day, the political battles, discussion about reform of the legislative process, and efforts to bridge the partisan divide.”

(photo by Sam Levitan)

Molly Cole is another policy advocate, but one who works within a congressman’s office: Democrat Gerry Connolly, whose 11th district includes most of Fairfax and Prince William counties.

“More than one in four people in our district are foreign-born, and our constituents, including many federal employees, are well-versed in international issues,” said Cole, who serves as Rep. Connolly’s legislative assistant.

Her boss has co-authored “a bipartisan letter signed by 191 members of Congress urging President Trump to reaffirm longstanding U.S. support of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“When the Trump Administration proposed slashing the State Department’s and USAID’s budgets by one-third, Rep. Connolly repeatedly spoke out in support of U.S. development and diplomacy programs,” she said.

Asked to describe her day, Cole noted its breadth: “My job is to advise the Congressman on any issue that falls within my portfolio, which includes not only foreign affairs, but also homeland security, judiciary, trade, defense, and veterans affairs.

“Depending on the day, I may be drafting talking points, meeting with constituent advocates, or researching legislative proposals. The work is exhilarating because every day is different and there is always more to learn.”

Cole, a 2011 MPP graduate, cited the value of her Batten education in preparing her for her current work.

“Batten taught me how to write for a policymaker, gave me a community that has evolved into a network, and inspired me to cultivate my own leadership skills. I deeply appreciate my time at Batten and treasure my bonds with members of the Batten community. However, some things you can only learn by doing, and the Hill has a steep learning curve.”

Maxwell agreed, saying, “I can think of no better preparation for the work I’m doing now than the Batten curriculum…I’m especially grateful for Batten’s ‘48-hour project,’ which requires students to learn a completely unfamiliar policy issue in 48 hours, while still completing their other assignments. The 48-hour project taught me how to quickly locate the most important information for a given public policy problem, weigh options, and present solutions in a clear and concise format. My ability to do this work calmly and efficiently is a direct result of the training I received at the Batten school.”

Batten School classes on Washington and Richmond policymaking routinely attract elected officials to interact with students, and even to debate challengers in primary and general election campaigns. Batten professor Craig Volden’s new Center for Effective Lawmaking brings Batten students together with key legislators on numerous occasions throughout the year.

In This Article

Professor of Practice of Public Policy
Email Address
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Garrett 102