On November 13, 2014, faculty and staff in the Wilson Leadership Center led 36 students to Capitol Hill for the 22nd annual trip to Washington, D.C., where the students met with lobbyists, congressional staffers, and political commentators for a firsthand look at the nuts and bolts of national politics and policymaking. The aspiring Washingtonians had opportunities to network with the speakers and meet with their congressional representatives-rare opportunities for those about to compete for the few positions open to recent college graduates. All of the speakers were H-SC alumni, and many had gone on the same trip themselves when they had been students on The Hill.
Since its inception, the trip to Washington has been geared toward providing students with real insight into the inner workings of the national political machine. As Director of the Public Service Program at the Wilson Center Dr. David Marion explained, "These are intended to be educational trips to Washington, even for the alums. These are not fluff trips-we pack in between five and six hours of presentations each year. We have covered a wide range of subjects over the years, from international trade and national security, to national elections and energy policy, to international development and the national economy, among other topics." issues this year included the recent elections, the Keystone pipeline, military involvement in the Middle East, and energy policy, to name a few.
Students first funneled into the Rayburn House Office Building for a discussion with political polar opposites Charlie Hurt '95 and Christopher Cooper '93. Hurt is a columnist and Washington Times and Fox News contributor, and his brother, Robert Hurt '91, is the current Republican congressman from Virginia's 5th District. Cooper is the founder of Convergence Targeted Communications, a political communications company whose clients have included Obama for America and independence USA PAC, Michael Bloomberg's gun control political action committee. The two had a vigorous discussion on the election results from earlier that month.
In the 2014 midterm elections, the Republicans gained nine seats in the Senate and garnered 14 new seats in the House. Hurt noted how "it is almost impossible to overstate the drubbing that Democrats got in this race." He spoke on the Democrats' failed strategy to portray "this notion of a Republican war on women, which they've been saying for years, and worked it to the hilt. ... it completely blew up their playbook." it was a thorough defeat reflecting Americans' general rejection of Democratic policy, he believed.
Cooper spoke next. It was obvious that Democrats would lose some seats, he said. "When you look at some of the broad environmental factors in this election, it was only a question of how much Democrats would lose. We're in an era of strong disdain for politics and establishment politicians. ... These midterms tend to breakdown as referenda on the president. ... And the electorate swings back and forth. Just wait two years, and the pendulum will swing back." He also pointed out how the elections in the sixth year of a presidential term routinely swing in the opposing party's favor, and how the electorate for many Senate seats was already heavily favoring Republicans.
Other topics of discussion included in-depth opinions and speculations from both speakers on the possible implications of the 2014 midterms on the 2016 presidential elections, as well as forward-looking thoughts on electoral strategies. "Hillary-if it is Hillary-will need to articulate what Democrats believe in; there need to be ideas-we're out of ideas. ... There needs to be a philosophical and intellectual underpinning to this campaign, which i think there will be," Cooper said.
The back-and-forth discussion continued with Hurt asserting that the Democrats had "damaged their brand name" with their failed programs and ideas, and that it would take many years for the party to recover from its losses-far beyond the 2016 elections. Cooper largely dismissed the Republican threat, noting the lack of Republican unity in the House and predicting few legislative victories. There were plenty of quips, comebacks, and good-humored political jabbing throughout the talk, and based on the grins and many raised hands in the audience, the students seemed delighted with the fiery exchange.
"It was one of the most lively debates i think i've seen," said Tyler Langhorne '18. "We were a little shocked when they first starting going at each other, but then it became interesting. it was just a lot of fun." Langhorne is a transfer student who was admitted to the Freshman Leadership Program in the summer of 2014.
Students also heard from Adam Barker '05 and Paul Cooksey '70 on the latest threats from the Islamic State and other international issues. Barker is a Senate Armed Services Committee staffer attached to the office of Senator Department of State and was formerly with the iraq Reconstruction Commission.
Barker has been working on Capitol Hill since he graduated. He spoke at length on the 2015 Defense Authorization Bill, which directed tax dollars toward facilities, training, operations, and other military activities at home and abroad. Among the topics Barker and Cooksey discussed were the funds allocated for the Ebola health facility in West Africa, for aid in the Syrian conflict, and for battling the islamic State. Barker lamented the dissolution of a significant portion of the iraqi army, much of which had essentially capitulated to ISIS and surrendered millions of dollars worth of American-bought equipment. Students were told of the possible military strategies being considered to fight the radicals, such as training Kurds and supplying arms and other supplies.Alumni Chris Kurowski '98 and Adam Talaber '97 spoke next. Kurowski works for the Johns Hopkins University National Security Analysis Department, and Talaber works in the Congressional Budget Office in the National Security Section.
Their discussion centered less on the partisan politics of earlier talks and more on the fiscal side of policymaking. "it's all about the money," Kurowski explained. in the higher echelon of elected representatives, party affiliation has little to do with the decisions that have to be made. "The question is, ‘What can we do with the money we have and the forces that we have today?'" Various issues in Africa, concerns with Russia, and the conflict in the Ukraine, for example, must be addressed in some way, they explained, and from a budgetary perspective, the issue is not what should be done, but rather what can be done given the country's current financial situation.
In the last session more than a half dozen other Hampden-Sydney alumni talked about the challenges facing Congress and what it's like working on the Hill. Those included Andrew Duke '90, chief of staff for Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas; Mark Kearney '05, legislative assistant on the House Foreign Affairs Committee; Gordon Neal '09, communications director for Rep. Robert J. Wittman of Virginia; Eric Joyce '90 of the House Administrative Services; J.D. "Mac" McKinney '11, legislative assistant to Rep. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina; and John Jennings '12, staff assistant to Rep. John Campbell of California.
Each H-SC alumnus talked about the day-to-day processes of pushing certain bills, maintaining good relationships with constituents, and how their bosses are handling some of the latest domestic policy issues. it was an intimate look into the life of a typical staffer.
Wilson Center Director and retired Lt. Col. Rucker Snead '81 turned the discussion toward practical matters. "We've got some guys here who might want to work on the Hill. What advice do you have for them?"
The alumni were quick with suggestions on how to become interns or legislative assistants-typically entry-level jobs on Capitol Hill-and how to become valuable members of congressional staffs. They admitted that at first the pay is poor and the hours can be long, but if a student really wants to get into politics, then he needs to go to Washington.
"When you walk into an office, know who [the representative] is. Know their voting record," said one.
"Know if they're retiring," mentioned another, amid some laughter. "I've gotten four applications for internships for next spring, after my boss will have retired."
And once their foot is in the door, "If you get an internship, work hard, and crank out letters. Network with your other interns. We all talk to each other, and your name could get mentioned somewhere. That's how i got my job."
Following the presentations and discussions, students exchanged phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and business cards with the alumni. By the end of the sessions, it had become clear that future graduates needed to make contact with these alumni today, well before they walk across the stage in front of Venable Hall. By that time, they should know what to expect if they one day settle on the other side of the Potomac.
"It's never dull. it's a lot of fun. You come here to do something serious, and you're with a lot of people who come here wanting to do something serious, too," as one alumnus concluded.
Following the sessions on the House side of the Hill, students made their way to the Capitol Hill Club for dinner. While enjoying hamburgers and French fries, students heard one final session on energy issues from Christopher Chapel '93 and Scott Schwind '93. Unlike the previous alumni, who largely work for representatives and senators, Chapel and Schwind try to influence lawmakers in the interests of their companies or industries.
Schwind is a partner with the Houston office of the global law firm Jones Day and specializes in international energy and natural resources law. He emphasized the importance of the country's need for a stable energy supply and how that need has shaped "a lot of the decisions and global events over the past 50 years." Even in recent wars, he claimed, parties have had to consider the effect on energy production. He discussed the transition in America from dependence on foreign oil to complete energy independence, helped largely by the recent shale oil boom, a beneficial move he believes will be complete by 2035.
Chapel is the vice president of governmental affairs for NextEra Energy, inc., which invests in "energy technologies that are designed to provide affordable, clean, and reliable power," according to the company website. They are "the largest gas-burner in the country, the fourth-largest nuclear generator in the country, and the largest solar generator and wind generator in the country," he said. He discussed at length the "energy renaissance" we are experiencing today, and he attributes much of the recent economic growth to our abundance of sources for electricity. To continue on this path, energy production in all sectors needs to increase, including more nuclear energy, which has essentially no emissions, and clean coal, he said.
Overall, it was an informative discussion on energy policies and energy production in the United States, although it was clear that the alumni were promoting their particular industries' points of view. Of course, every industry has representatives arguing on their behalf, as Schwind said, and those advocates often have to compete for lawmakers' votes.
The visit to Capitol Hill made it clear that to flourish in Washington, D.C., students need to harness the skills Hampden-Sydney stresses in its liberal arts education: thinking critically; writing clearly; and using argument to advance positions, among others. it is only by mastering those techniques that a student interested in politics can be a successful staff member, lobbyist, or political commentator.
By the end of the day, students gained a clearer understanding of what would be expected of them once they embark on a professional career in Washington. By exchanging a few business cards with some fellow Hampden-Sydney men, some of the students may already be on their way to a new career on the other Hill.