Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned on the Hill
by Barbara Baylor, MPH
American Public Health Association’s 2013 Brookings Institution Congressional Fellow, January - December 2013, Congressman Charles B. Rangel’s Office
I was given the most amazing opportunity and experience. One that I shall never forget! I was selected as the American Public Health Association’s 2013 Public Policy Fellow through the Brookings Institution Congressional Fellowship Program. That meant spending a year working on Capitol Hill learning, observing, hearing about how policy is developed and implemented, and the role that politics plays in it. What an honor! I was part of a group of forty-six all going through training with the Brookings Institution who prepared us for our time on “the Hill”. We entered our training and orientation with fear of the unknown but also excited for the unknown. Although our class was repeatedly told, not to worry, "we would all get placements", there was still a tiny bit of doubt in some of us if that would be quite true and I think we agonized over this until it came true!
For the last year, I have had the wonderful honor of working in the office of Congressman Charles Rangel from the 13th district of New York. This meant a lot to me, as one, I was born on the site that Harlem Hospital now sits on. My family comes from Brooklyn and Queens, but I was raised in upstate New York. I felt like it was providence that I would wind up working in this office. I ultimately chose this office because of the heavy emphasis on constituent and community needs. The experience taught me so much, not only about the political process, but about life itself. As a person who is a- lot-of- times anxious, I did learn to go slower and not be anxious about everything. I learned that it was okay to not be "perfect." It was surely a “different world from where I come from."
As many fellows before me, I came with a great expectations and ideas on what I wanted to do. I had wanted to be very specific about working on public health issues only, but I ended up working on not only health issues but on other important issues as well. Working in the personal office of a Congressman afforded me the opportunity to learn and complete a variety of tasks that included: 1) wrote statements and op-eds on a number of health topics based on the national health observance calendar. Two of my op-eds were included in local newspapers and several statements were registered in the Congressional Records; 2) read and determined legislation that Congressman should co-sponsor; 3) coordinated two major events in the Congressman’s district that related to public health including an event with Grammy Award Winner Alicia Keys on HIV/AIDS in which over 500 persons attended and an event on the Health Care Marketplaces with over 700 persons attending a breakfast and outdoor health fair; 4) completed existing legislation on HIV/AIDS, prepared "Dear Colleague" letters, lobbied legislators and community organizations for co sponsorship ; 5) proposed and drafted new legislation on mental health and violence; 6) proposed the establishment of a congressional caucus on Sickle Cell Disease and completed the process for this; 7) drafted legislation to establish a National Commission on Rare Diseases; 8) prepared talking points for the Congressman for Alicia Keys event, health care event and his visits to district constituents on senior citizen fraud, affordable care act; 9) participated on team to make decisions on appropriations priorities and submitting these priorities during appropriations process; 10) met with dozens of constituent and lobbyist groups to hear view on health and health related issues; 12) attended legislative briefings on health care and other issues.
I was and still am very interested in not only how to formulate policy, but how to speak policy. There is a way in which one learns how to speak in policy terms, phrases. I think there is particular vernacular related to policy. I learned that it is very important to understand that the job of Congress is to legislate. When developing policy, ask if it will lend itself to a legislative solution. Is there any law that covers this area? Ask what the purpose of the legislation. Research what the upsides and downsides are of what is being proposed - are funds needed? What are the costs associated with it? Finally, always understand the politics of the policy. I'll always remember the words - "Policy, the Procedures and the Politics."
Some other wise tidbits that I will remember include: - When planning events, they must fit the needs of the constituents. What or who is the draw? We must keep in mind that the subject matter is not enough. – You can’t believe everything that you hear from constituents and lobbyists. I always wanted to take everything said to me at "face value" but I soon learned to discriminate motivation and agenda from emotion. – You don’t need to write a thesis to say what you can in one page! Everything on the Hill is short and to the point.
Finally, I will take away these simple life lessons that were often repeated by the Chief of Staff, George Henry. They are useful for just about everything we do in any position. I know that I shall remember these wise sayings for years to come and reflect on them when I return to my place of employment.
1. “If a Tree falls in the forest and no one’s around, does it make a sound?
”This refers to putting the word out on what the Congressman is doing. If no one hears it, it doesn’t matter, if it makes a sound our not! We need to make sure that constituents know what is going.
2. “How do you know you don’t know?
”You must ask questions. Lobby other offices, know what your member thinks is important, gain knowledge about the legislative process. Talk more so we can communicate, take notes.
3. “The most successful generals in battlefield were those who adapt to change.”
Things change so much every day. To be successful, you must adapt to change.
4. “In order to get where you’re going, sometimes you have to go back the way you came.”
Working in a congress person’s office means sometimes humbling yourself and realizing that things are not the same as where you worked. What is the greatest good? It’s not about you! Events are political.
5. “How heavy is a cup of water?”
It depends on how long you hold it. Some situations you have to just let go of to keep yourself stress-free. When it comes to legislation development – ask what are the ups and downsides of a bill? Remember, we are in the minority and not many things are getting through.
6. "No rigidity in the office. Be fluid. Go with the flow.”
We sometimes fight what “is.” Sometimes we fight against the member’s energy. For example, you are bringing your energy, but it’s not the member’s energy and he/she may not advocate for what you want to do. The issue may not be as important to him/her as it is to you. Your passion may not be his/her passion. You may be putting your energy in the direction of doing something NOT in the member’s interest.
7. “Don’t get lost in the trees and forget about the forest.”
Get out of the trees and look at the forest. See the bigger picture on legislative or other policy issues and not get stuck on small issues. Planning properly is a process; it may mean doing nothing. See what is happening overall. Don’t compartmentalize everything.
8. “By doing nothing, there’s a way in which you learn.”
Sometimes sitting back, things fall into place. Don’t be so anxious.
9. “You see things I don’t see and I see things you don’t see.”
Keep lines of communication open. Think about the signals you are sending out.(I remember this one time that I sent an email following a planning meeting just to recapture the meeting, and I was later told that (although I didn't mean to) I was communicating I didn't trust that the process would work. Be careful how you communicate.
10. "How do you make a path?"
Single footsteps across the earth do not make a path. To make a path you must sometimes go over the same ground area and think deep thoughts about what changes are needed. Be willing to try something new! Think about an MRI - radiation is good for screening but over-exposure can be dangerous.
I will continue to develop and practice all the lessons I have learned in my new position as Policy Advocate for Health and Wholeness Issues with the National Offices of the United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C.