From the Hill to the Hill

by Pamela Camerra-Rowe

My colleague called it "The Kneel." When staffers talk to senators on the chamber floor or in committee meetings, they bend down on one knee, lower their heads, and whisper into the senator's ear. The Kneel is a sign of deference, an acknowledgment that a staffer knows his job: stay in the background and make the boss look good.

The Kneel is just one of the things I learned when I worked last year in the Senate as a Congressional fellow for the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. I'd taught American politics at Kenyon for more than a decade, but this was a chance to see realities that the textbooks don't cover.

Take the difference between the House of Representatives and Senate. Beyond the fact that the Senate is smaller and that senators have longer terms and larger offices, there's a decidedly different feel to the two chambers. The attire in the Senate is more formal; staffers are more likely to wear suits every day. On the House side—in the so-called "peoples' house"—it's not surprising to find staffers in blue jeans on a Friday afternoon.

The attitudes of the staffers towards their colleagues in the other chamber also differ. House staffers think that those on the Senate side are arrogant and that the chamber is slow and unable to get things done. Senate staffers think the House is parochial and that it cannot produce legislation that can be passed by the Senate.

The Senate is known for its individualism, and the power of individual senators increases the importance of understanding their personalities and priorities. Some clues can be found in the décor of their front offices. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has an old-fashioned popcorn machine in his office, reflecting not only the importance of agriculture in Iowa but also Harkin's populist spirit: anyone can stop by for a bag of popcorn, which I often did in the late afternoon.

Senator Kent Conrad (D-North Dakota) keeps racks of journals and news magazines in his office, a sign of his serious and academic approach to public policy. Senator Joe Lieberman (ID-Connecticut) has pictures of himself with former presidents and politicians from both political parties, evidence of his belief in working across party lines.

Then there's hallway demeanor. Some senators, like Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico), are quiet, serious policy makers, rarely in the spotlight. I would see him returning alone from the Senate cafeteria with his lunch in his hand so he could work at his desk. Others, like Chuck Schumer (D-New York), are gregarious leaders fond of talking with the press in the halls of the Senate office buildings or in the Capitol.

Textbooks don't capture the way reelection concerns affect the work of Congress. I saw senators run across the street at lunchtime to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee office to call donors. On Thursday afternoons, legislators from both chambers would rush to the airport so they could return to their districts or states to meet constituents and see their families. They wouldn't get back until Monday afternoon, with the result that committee meetings and hearings were packed into the middle of the week, as were almost all floor votes.

But what surprised me the most about working on Capitol Hill was how many of my former students are there. I am convinced that Kenyon alumni will soon rule Washington. I saw Jack Pratt '98, chief of staff for Representative Steve Israel (D-NY), walking to Eastern Market on weekends. Bryon Manna '05, a legislative correspondent for Senator Lieberman, worked across the hall. I rode the Capitol subway with Kate Ostrander '03, legislative director for Representative Steve LaTourette (R-OH). I had lunch with Chris Brose '02, now the national security advisor to Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and a staff member on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

There were dozens of other former students with whom I met during the year. They worked for the White House, lobbying groups, federal agencies, and think tanks. I was heartened to see so many of them in Washington, because they bring thoughtful and analytical views to the issues facing
the country.

I was never tempted to stay myself. For one thing, I love teaching—including the chance to train a new generation of public servants and politically engaged citizens. Also, I think my knees are too creaky to do The Kneel.

Associate Professor of Political Science Pamela Camerra-Rowe, who has taught at Kenyon since 1994, worked on the Hill as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow.

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