Italian wine and economics in the Senate Special Committee on Aging

Travel books lean against thick economics volumes on Debra Bailey Whitman’s bookshelf at the Senate Special Committee on Aging. Whitman, 37, not only knows about Social Security policy but how to order pizza and wine in Italian. The Electric City, Wash., native is moving in as staff director for the committee, which is chaired by Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.).

Portraits of the fishing villages in Cinque Terre, Italy, lean against Whitman’s desk, waiting to be hung on the wall.

“It’s my happy place,” she said. Even though she did her college degree in her home state, at Gonzaga University, she studied for a year in Florence.

She may have framed photos of Italy, but she still hasn’t framed her Ph.D. in economics, which she received from Syracuse University. She’s nonchalant about her qualifications, even though she is the first person in her immediate family to have an advanced degree. She even shies away from having her picture taken.

When Kohl interviewed her for the position, he asked if she considered herself an economist.

“I said, no, I’m not in an ivory tower,” she said. “But it informs everything I do.”

Research is her bread and butter, but she doesn’t like to consider herself a stuffy academic. The Journal of the American Medical Association is what she reads, but she says stories of the human experience are just as captivating.

“Where you are when you are older is a culmination of your life experience,” she said. “The government has a huge influence on [people’s] lives.”

Her initial job in Washington was as a researcher at the Social Security Administration. She got her first taste of actual policymaking in 2001 when she joined Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) Health Committee staff as a Brookings Fellow, where she worked for two years. She later moved over to the Congressional Research Service as a specialist in the economics on aging, where she worked until a month ago.

She said the hop to the Senate side is mostly welcome. But as an avid coffee drinker, she will miss the Starbucks on the House side.

The coffee gives her energy to fill the role of mother to two children, 5 and 3. Her husband is a teacher at The Potomac School. They try to spend all the time they can with their kids.

“They’re the biggest joy in the world,” she said.

Whitman has a plan to visit 50 countries and all 50 states. For their honeymoon in 1999, she and her husband went to Cairo, where her brother lives, and the West Bank.

“It was a different place,” she said. “Clinton was in the White House, there was peace in the Middle East.”
The next stop: Greece and Croatia.

Back at work, she’s busy organizing hearings on pharmaceutical companies marketing their drugs to doctors. She says the Senate Committee on Aging was the first committee to introduce the issue.

“I see this committee making a bigger mark than it has [before],” she said. “I take no credit.”