Wilkommen to Congress

Sebastian Bruns has long been fascinated with America. The German spent his junior year in high school as an exchange student in Daphne, Ala., and returned to the U.S. while in college for a summer internship at the National Museum of the U.S. Navy here in Washington.

Bruns has now landed a job in arguably the most American of institutions as an aide to freshman Rep. Todd Young (R-Ind.).

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Bruns, 29, and his compatriot René Wildangel arrived on Capitol Hill as part of a nine-month fellowship administered by the American Political Science Association (APSA) and funded by the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The two are relishing their chance to witness the American democratic process up close and find nearly daily lessons in the differences between the government of their host country and that of their homeland.

“I feel, more often than not, like a kid in a candy store,” Bruns said of his time on Capitol Hill. The maritime and naval security analyst has enjoyed seeing Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other big Washington names testify in House Armed Services Committee hearings. 

Wildangel, 37 and a foreign affairs expert with a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern history, has taken advantage of his position in Rep. Jim McDermott’s (D-Wash.) office to attend events with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other experts in 

international relations.

“You can get into any hearing or meeting with your staff ID, if you want to,” Wildangel said, drawing a contrast to the German parliament, or Bundestag, where he used to work. The culture around the Bundestag isn’t as vibrant and open, both he and Bruns said.

Bruns and Wildangel said they applied for the exclusive fellowship because they see the power Congress has both nationally and internationally, and they wanted to take part in its intricacies so that they could understand the legislative body’s work in a larger context.

“Even if the world is changing these days, America still plays a very important role,” Wildangel said.

And, as for Bruns, his interest in America has stretched “the better part” of his life, he said, adding that he’s been “fascinated with the can-do spirit and with the way American culture and American politics shape world politics and world history.”

His focus on naval and maritime policy has an American influence, too. During his undergraduate studies at the University of Bonn, he needed to find an internship in the U.S. to complete his degree in North American studies, so he contacted the Navy Museum on a whim.

He had such a great experience there and made such lasting relationships with his colleagues that he decided to pursue naval and maritime policy for his career.

Their congressional experience hasn’t been without its hiccups. After they completed their three-month training alongside several other APSA fellows, they set out to find congressional offices in which they could work. But their timing was a bit off — they began their search late last fall, when most of Capitol Hill was in flux due to the turnover the election caused.

But Bruns said he is happy to have found a job with Young, who sits on the Armed Services Committee’s Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee and who started his career as a Marine Corps officer. Bruns serves as Young’s military legislative assistant.

Bruns said he enjoys the whole experience so far, “everything from carrying the BlackBerry around all the time to going to events to finding out about the Washington social scene.” 

“Every day is a tremendous learning experience,” he said.

Wildangel, too, said McDermott’s office has been a nice fit for him because their politics align well and the lawmaker has worked extensively on international policy.

McDermott said he has had fellows in his office for all 23 years he’s been a member of Congress. He’s hosted fellows from Brazil, Chile, China, India, Germany, Australia and other countries, he said, and he now makes a point of having a fluent Arabic speaker in his office so that he can monitor Arabic media.

“They add to the office a perspective that my aides don’t have — that is: What’s going on someplace else in the world?” McDermott said. “I think they’re a great value to the office.”

Nevertheless, Bruns and Wildangel marvel at some of the differences, both big and small, between the American Congress and political system and the German structure of governance. Both said they see much more partisanship in Congress. As they both watch the wrangling over the American federal budget, they said they don’t think a similar scenario would ever play out in Germany.

“I cannot imagine what we would have to have happen to shut down the German government,” Bruns said.

Or, Wildangel said, while the question here is how big a role the state should have in healthcare, the question in Germany is not whether the state should have a role but what kind of state-run healthcare model is superior.

Little things get them, too. They’re often mistaken for interns — many people aren’t sure what to make of Germans working in Congress, they said — and both said the cafeterias’ disposable utensils and Styrofoam dishware strike at their German sensibilities.

“We’re more eco-friendly,” Bruns said.

The two have managed to bring a little bit of Germany to Washington, forming the first official fan club on American soil for the F.C. Cologne soccer team with several other Germans living here. The club recently had its first meeting, a 9 a.m. breakfast with “strong European coffee, good German bread and Nutella” to watch one of the games.

They’re already thinking about what they’ll do after their fellowship, saying that, whatever happens, their experience in Congress will surely be valuable. But for Bruns, his answer on what he’d like the future to hold isn’t surprising.

“I wouldn’t mind staying here,” he said.

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