Walking the Walk: NASPA Policy Staff as Constituents on Capitol Hill

Just over a year ago, NASPA held our first Hill Day in recent memory, bringing 45 student affairs professionals, including three NASPA interns, representing 19 states from Alaska to Ohio to Florida, to participate in more than 50 meetings with Congressional Members and their staff on July 17, 2018. Participants in the 2018 NASPA Hill Day braved the steamy streets of DC in mid-summer and gained broader understanding of their role in advocating for students and student affairs at the federal level. As staff who organized the 2018 Hill Days, the excitement of our participants was both infectious and gratifying and we were excited to be able to offer the opportunity again.

Following the 2018 NASPA Hill Days, our participants were generous with their feedback about what worked well for them and what didn’t. We heard from our advocates that they wanted more detailed information about their Congressional delegations earlier. They also shared that getting more of an opportunity to get to know the other advocates they’d be heading into meetings with would help them plan more effective meetings. With such rich feedback and suggestions, we set about rethinking our approach to advocate preparation to better meet the needs of our participants.

We’re excited to offer 2019 NASPA Hill Days participants[1] more than a simple fly-in advocacy day. Through the late summer and fall, participants will engage with NASPA policy and advocacy and civic learning and democratic engagement staff to build a strong foundation of knowledge about key public policy issues, their individual Congressional delegations, and techniques for engaging in advocacy in order to prepare them for their visits with Congressional members and staff in early December. Part of this work will include participants reaching out with their team mates to schedule their own meetings with their own delegations, which we know can be a little daunting the first time. We know this because as we were planning the 2019 NASPA Hill Days, we realized that it was something we’d never done ourselves, as constituents[2]. So, we decided it was time to walk the walk we were asking of our participants.

Diana lives in Illinois 2nd District, and reached out to both Illinois’s Senators, Richard J. Durbin (D) and Tammy Duckworth (D), as well as her Representative Robin Kelly (D). Teri lives in Maryland’s 5th District, and reached out to both Maryland’s Senators, Chris Van Hollen (D) and Benjamin L. Cardin (D), as well as her Representative Steny Hoyer (D), who is also the House Majority Whip. Of the six possible meetings, we were able to schedule time with staff from five offices on Monday, May 20, 2019. We’ve each taken some time to reflect on our meetings, specifically what it was like as a constituent speaking to those who represent us in the halls of Congress.

Little Fish, Big Nation’s Capitol?

Diana Ali, Assistant Director of Policy Research and Advocacy, NASPA

It started to really dawn on me about a week out of our visit to the Capitol that I had never gone to D.C. before with the specific agenda to talk to my elected officials. While I have had a chance, as a part of community-based organizations in my area, to advocate in support of the passage of crucial legislation at my state capitol, and I have also visited DC a number of times in my youth spurred by the effort of my teachers to help my classmates and me understand our role in our representative democracy, I had never before combined these disparate activities together. I questioned how much I would really be valued as a constituent outside of my little political bubble in Chicago. I knew, however, that it was important for me to find out, given how often I share messaging around the power and the privilege of being able to vote and shape policymaking. 

The process of scheduling office visits turned out to be both easier and more complicated than I had previously imagined. The process was more complicated in that it wasn’t obvious to me as to who I should contact and the method of appropriate contact. The process was easier in some ways, such as when I was unsure which staffer conducted scheduling and my message was forwarded to the correct individual who could assist me. I was able to quickly schedule a meeting with Senator Durbin’s office via email, and was redirected to fill out a contact form on Senator Duckworth’s website as her scheduler had recently changed positions.

None of my elected officials were available to meet with me on the day I would be in DC, but I was able to schedule meetings with staff familiar with education policy instead. While initially disappointed in this, I quickly learned that staffers on the Hill, regardless of past experience, have an astounding knowledge of the evolving policy landscape. I felt that the staffers I met with were incredibly informed and were able to efficiently use the NASPA position statements provided to parse out the information most valuable for their respective Senators.

Overall, I felt heard by the offices of Senator Durbin and Duckworth, and felt that having the power of NASPA’s 16,000 membership behind me certainly helped. Staffers in Senator Duckworth’s office treated Teri and I as experts in the field and offered to send over legislative text for us to provide feedback. Senator Durbin’s office expressed interest in consulting over specific talking points on Higher Education Reauthorization. Given that staffers cram as many visits with constituents into a day as possible, my meetings felt productive and I didn’t feel rushed for time. Most of the staffers we met with were also interested in the work of NASPA, which made me hopeful for future partnerships and solidified for me the multi-faceted value of our upcoming Hill Days in December.

Visits with the Maryland Delegation

Teri Lyn Hinds, Director of Policy Research and Advocacy, NASPA

Living in the DC metro area and working in policy for the last seven years means I’ve had plenty of opportunities to interact with policymakers on the Hill. As a born-and-bred Minnesotan, I remember feeling a little star-struck when I got to watch my homestate’s Senator ask witnesses thoughtful and insightful questions in person during hearings of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. I’ve long known, however, that the brilliance of those legislators rides on the shoulders of their staff. Congressional staff are often tasked with monumental responsibilities like understanding enough of the complexity and nuance of our massive post-secondary education system to be able to advise and craft legislative text that will accomplish a stated goal without introducing innumerable unintended consequences.

It’s a tall order and a tough job and I was immediately impressed and, as a constituent, put at ease by the staff in both Senators Cardin and Van Hollen’s offices. They were welcoming and interested in the positions Diana and I were sharing on behalf of NASPA on the Higher Education Act reauthorization. They spoke to specific legislation their bosses had sponsored or supported that would further our priorities of meeting the needs of today’s students, such as support for campus childcare grants through the Child Care Access Means Parents in School Program (CCAMPIS) or extension of the Second Chance Pell program, which opens Pell funding for incarcerated individuals. They were curious to know the experiences of our members in responding to growing hate speech on campus, particularly increases in anti-Semitism. We took notes and followed up with additional resources and information they requested by email.

I’d be remiss in talking about our meeting with Representative Hoyer’s staff by not acknowledging his role with the Democratic Party. Representative Hoyer serves as the Majority Whip in the House of Representatives, a position of party leadership that is frequently mentioned in the media, but sometimes little understood. A whip is a position of enforcement within a political party, working to ensure that party members are voting in accordance with the party’s stated policy platform on key issues. As such, the whip is similarly expected to act first with the interests of the party in mind. Our meeting with Representative Hoyer’s office represented that role perfectly with repeated statements that the Representative supported legislation that was passed out of the House Committees and few statements about his own views or positions.

As a constituent, I will admit that the requirement that my representative be loyal to the Democratic party first makes me a little unsettled. He is, after all, elected by the residents of our district to represent our best interests in federal matters. Maryland’s 5th District comprises nearly all the southern peninsula, bounded by the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay, and includes St. Mary’s County, which at the state level has been represented by Republicans since 2014. I left the meeting wondering how well my neighbors to the south feel their interests are represented in DC.

Ultimately, regardless of policy expertise or familiarity with the Hill, we found that meeting with our elected officials as a constituents offered an enriching one-of-a-kind experience. We’re thankful for the opportunity! Want to meet with your representatives in Washington, DC? Applications are open now for the 2019 NASPA Hill Days!

[1] Want to join us for the 2019 NASPA Hill Days? Applications are open through June 30!

[2] NASPA staff work with staff and members of Congress throughout the year on behalf of the association, but in those settings we are representing the association, not speaking as constituents to our own individual Congressional representatives.