Although I grew up in the D.C. metropolitan area and I’ve always been interested in government, there’s a seemingly infinite sum of things that I didn’t understand or pay enough attention to until I came to the Capitol and experienced them myself.

The first? Government is working very hard, full-time. We’re all used to hearing about Congressional gridlock, but it’s not because they’re sitting around doing nothing. The Congressional buildings are constantly in motion; staffers, representatives, and senators are always heading to a meeting, session, briefing. Most of them don’t stop working until after 6:00 or 7:00 and even then they’re constantly keeping tabs on what’s happening in America and around the world.

The second is an extension of the first — the people running our country are human. Perpetually seeing our members of Congress solely through the TV screen and newspaper headlines makes it easy to envision them as robot lawyer billionaires manufactured strictly by Harvard and Yale to spew out every four-syllable word in the dictionary and write legislation with the efficiency of a printing press. They’re not. (Although a legislation-writing robot would be quite useful.) Just like everyone else, they’re regular people trying to do their best at their jobs. The only difference is that their job has higher stakes. Members of Congress eat together in the cafeteria. Republicans and Democrats joke around with each other before hearings. Many offices have office dogs, not for security but for companionship. Congress isn’t made of just lawyers, but ranchers, musicians, pilots, sheriffs, astronauts, and comedians. They are fallible like all humans, but they do understand what America is facing and are working hard.

My third realization is that hearings and markups are actually open to the public. Every time I walk through security in Rayburn, I feel like some security guard is going to lay his hand on my shoulder and calmly escort me to a tour group (or throw me out the front door like Jazz in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air). But that never happens. Why? Because every American has a right to be in there. It’s our government, and it is treated as such. Anyone can come in and visit their lawmakers’ offices. Anyone can attend hearings – and they do, as you’ll see from the protesters and even the dinosaurs who sometimes show up.

Fourth, you need to read a variety of news sources. Taking this action is imperative not only because every publication has a bias one way or the other – trust me, finding a nonpartisan source is near impossible – but also because there’s so much happening that it’s impossible for any one source to cover everything. I noticed this while reading articles about the hearings after attending them myself. The top five or six articles would often focus on the same topic, which only represented perhaps 10% of the subject matter in the actual hearing. If you only pay attention to one publication, you’re not getting the whole picture.

Finally, by observing government at the federal level, I learned something important about government at the state and local levels. And that is: it matters. Media attention is generally solely concentrated on Congress, the Supreme Court, and the President. As a result, state and local governments are neglected. The members of Congress are in Washington to represent their home states and districts. I can’t think of a single senator who didn’t ask questions based specifically on their state in the confirmation hearings. They make legislation not just for the country, but for the people in their towns and counties. If that isn’t enough to convince you to pay attention to local politics, consider the fact that most members of Congress served on town councils or state legislature before they were elected to the federal Congress. The council member you elect today could easily be your federal Congress member a few years from now (which is why it’s so awesome that POPVOX State is out now. Shameless plug, but it’s true).       

A huge thank you to POPVOX for giving me this amazing learning experience and the opportunity to see this all first-hand.

And lastly, a few quick takeaways:

·      Senate Dining is waaaay better than House Dining.

·      Unlike most people you see on TV, members of Congress look better in person.

·      There are tunnels underneath the Capitol buildings that allow you to get around without having to go outside in the cold. There’s even an underground subway.

·   The offices vary greatly from custom websites to using the same templates to small staffs to large staffs. Congress is not one homogenous entity.

·      There’s a caucus for just about everything, from the Congressional College Football Caucus to the Motorcycle Caucus.