Learning about congress

Those who continue their education while working for Congress, whether through graduate school or congressional fellowships, say that reading about American politics, even for years, is nothing like living the experience.

“I got the feeling that you can’t just read a book about Congress if you want to know how it actually works. You’ve got to be there,” said James Sullivan, an Australian who works in the office of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), when explaining why he decided to enroll in a congressional fellowship program through the American Political Science Association.

Sullivan, who said he has long held an interest in American politics on the other side of the globe, plans to apply his experiences on Capitol Hill upon his return to Australia. Despite the structural differences between the American and Australian governments, he said he has enjoyed bringing his perspective from Down Under to the American political process. Even if some colleagues don’t always realize that he’s from Australia.

“Some people think it’s a weird Oregonian accent,” Sullivan joked.

Menna Demessie, an APSA congressional fellow in the office of Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), said her experience has validated her research from her University of Michigan Ph.D. studies in political science and public policy, with a focus on U.S.-Africa foreign policy.

“For me, I came in with, ‘I want to see whether what I’ve been studying in theory for the past seven years actually happens in practice.’ And you find that yes, voting matters tremendously, but there’s a lot of other stuff that matters,” she said. “There’s all this in-between stuff that doesn’t always get captured in political science [classes].”

Demessie said her fellowship has provided a great support system.

“You know, they always talk about the ‘Potomac fever,’ and that’s a very true thing for us academics who probably never thought we would be able to survive on the Hill,” she said. “There’s a nice balance with this fellowship because it makes time for us to make meaning of what we’re doing on a daily basis.”

In addition to her work for Lee, Demessie teaches political science courses at the University of California, Washington Center. She said she plans to continue teaching there after her fellowship ends.

Despite years of studying American political science, both Sullivan and Demessie said experiencing the lawmaking process was a completely different ballpark from the textbooks. And for these academics, there is no better place to learn firsthand about the American political process than the center of power in Washington.

“There are times, like when you’re walking from Union Station to work in the morning and you see the [Capitol] dome, [when] you’ve got to pinch yourself [to truly realize] you’re working there,” Sullivan said. “There are times after hearings and meetings that you walk through the Capitol building and look out on the Mall, and you think, there are worse problems in the world to have than being tired and busy from working on the Hill.”

Sullivan, who has been with Wyden since December 2010, said the intensely partisan debates on the budget and debt ceiling in this Congress have been an experience that will stand out upon his return to Australia.

“It’s been a very eye-opening time to be on the Hill,” he said. “My appreciation for Congress will stay with me for years to come, that’s for sure.”