On my walk from the Capitol South metro station on my first day of work, a wave of familiarity washed over me. Seeing familiar sights like a broken escalator at the station, the House office buildings, interns hurrying to work, and the dome of the Capitol building, I felt at ease and as if nothing had changed from my summer working as an intern for my congresswoman. From the outside, there were many similarities; however, there was a new Congress in place, and I was about to take on a completely different role on the Hill.
From my time with POPVOX and viewing Congress in a different light, I’ve discovered some key findings:
1. Writing in a neutral, non-partisan way is extremely difficult.
Pivoting from looking at Congress through the partisan lens of a Congressional office to taking a nonpartisan, neutral approach working for POPVOX proved to be a challenge. How I perceived Congress changed fundamentally; instead of viewing actions taken by Congress or committees as either serving or running contrary to the interests of a specific member of Congress or a party, I was faced with the task of synthesizing the complex activities of the legislative branch from a completely neutral perspective. Though the office buildings remained as they had been a few months ago (save for the new numbering system in Rayburn and the shifting of some members’ offices), the way I engaged with what was happening inside greatly changed.
Working for POPVOX challenged me to carefully consider my own partisan biases, and how those biases shine through in my writing. My decisions of choosing whether to include information and how to phrase particular actions taken in hearings would directly affect how the information gets received by readers. Though I came into this job with some journalistic training and experience with being neutral with my writing, keeping my own strong opinions from unintentionally coloring the content of my blog posts was a greater challenge than I had anticipated. Because I was interrogating my own writing, I began to be more critical of the content I was reading and how supposedly neutral sources like The New York Times could still reflect a slight partisan bias. I learned how every word, statistic, or quote can contribute to serving a specific purpose in advancing an argument, and became a more thoughtful writer because of POPVOX.
2. There are so few sources that explain Congress clearly, and doing so is incredibly important work.
One of the other key takeaways from writing for POPVOX has been the rewarding feeling of being able to demystify what Congress does for our blog readers and users. Sometimes, it seems as if Congress tries to make its procedures overly complicated to dissuade the average constituent from engaging with the lawmaking process. To have a resource like POPVOX break down things like the confirmation hearing process clearly and concisely is so incredibly important to reaching the “middle third” of the American population and getting them engaged with their representatives. Congress should reflect the will of the people, but if the people do not have a strong grasp on what exactly Congress is doing, it does not work as it should. Because no other source does what POPVOX does in such a comprehensive manner, writing for the blog has been immensely rewarding. As a student of politics, writing for the blog has also helped me gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for what Congress does.
3. If you get in line early enough, you can get into almost any hearing you want to and you’ll meet some interesting people along the way.
Aside from the serious work I did for POPVOX over the past two weeks, I also got a chance to see the weird, wacky, and wonderful elements of our democracy up close. Waiting in line for Senate confirmation hearings for several hours in the early morning, I saw some very interesting things. For instance, there is an entire network of paid line holders, so staffers and lobbyists can spend their time working instead of waiting in line for a hearing for hours. If you hang around hearing lines enough, they'll start to recognize you and ask you "Who are you and who do you work for?". Often, large groups would arrive to take the place of one of these line holders. It was frustrating as someone who had been standing in line for hours, but at the same time, it was fascinating to watch this whole system function.
Joining me in line for these hearings were also a number of protesters and advocacy organizations. While some just wore clothing related to their cause (such as #ExxonKnew and #FreeIran) and sat silently in the hearings, others, such as protesters from the advocacy group CODEPINK, were extremely vocal. These protesters, who often held up signs and shouted things during the hearings, were quickly ejected by Capitol police. While some were upfront about the fact that they were protesting the hearing, fanning themselves with fake money and displaying other props, others hid signs in their bags and gradually worked up the courage to stand up and speak their minds. What surprised me the most was that most lawmakers seemed completely unfazed by the interruptions to the hearings.
4. You don’t have to be a lawyer to be a lawmaker.
Through the process of writing bios for every member of Congress to go on the updated POPVOX website, I got a better sense of just who is representing the American population. Former astronauts, farmers, reality TV stars, cattle herders, fighter pilots, and even a former NHL referee join the dozens of lawyers that make up our body of elected officials. Learning more about representatives’ backstories helped me develop a greater understanding of who roams the halls and underground tunnels every day. Some got their start in politics just by advocating for change in their neighborhoods. Some never wanted to be in politics, but found that they could not sit idly by as decisions were made that affected them and their families. And others always knew that they wanted to be in government. The process of researching more than 400 members of Congress showed me that there is no one path to government service, and no two politicians are alike in their motives or personal histories. (It also revealed that most–if not all–representatives’ websites use the same templates!)
5. (Political) Celebrities are EVERYWHERE
Another highlight of attending the hearings was definitely the celebrity sightings (no, not the Hollywood A-list kind—the Senatorial kind!). Having the chance to watch my favorite senators work on their respective committees left me with a big grin. I’m pretty sure the people sitting next to me at confirmation hearings judged me for getting dozens of grainy, blurry photos of my favorite senators, but I’ll treasure the fact that I was in the same room with them for years to come. I also noticed things about particular senators while watching them for hours at the hearings, such as the fact that Sen. Tim Kaine likes to lean very far back in his chair. Throughout the Tillerson hearing, I was constantly worried that he would fall back, but he never did!
I’ll always value the experiences I’ve had while working at POPVOX (and my parents will always value the blurred screenshots of CSPAN-3 they took when they saw someone that vaguely looked like me at a confirmation hearing).