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Heather Gautney is an associate professor of sociology at Fordham University and author of Protest and Organization in the Alternative Globalization Era.
A congressional fellowship involves a year of work in a Senate, House, or Committee office. Fellows have volition in terms of where they are placed, but not full control. At the end of an extensive orientation process, you are invited to a cocktail party, or “mixer,” where you meet informally with congressional staff. Then, after a series of formal interviews, you find a good “fit” and a yearlong placement.
As a political sociologist, my motivation was less about applied research or finding a Hill job than learning about Congress as a node of political power. I am writing a book on American power structures—a sort of rewriting of C. Wright Mills’ Power Elite. The fellowship experience is helping me put flesh on ideas regarding state power that I am considering in the book.
I was also, as a political person, interested in supporting the work of this particular senator. So I did very little shopping around in terms of placement.
In most placements, fellows report directly to a legislative aid or senior policy advisor. Before accepting a placement, fellows should inquire about the chain of command and who they will be working with as well as whether there will be any mentoring. It is important that there be mechanisms in place to integrate the fellow into the office.
I reported directly to the senator and his chief of staff and worked on issues related to international political economy. After a few months, I started to work more closely with senior staff, mostly providing research to support legislative aims. I was quite open to working outside my areas of specialization because I wanted to understand the political process. But most offices will be looking for fellows to take on portfolios that reflect their specific expertise. Some fellows will be on the Senate floor within two weeks, while others will never leave the office. It really depends on where you are placed and what’s expected of you—all of which can be decided before you accept a position.
The home state also plays an important role. The job involves frequent meeting with constituents. Such meetings help bring policy, and its limits, to life. For the senator, in whose office I worked, these meetings are how he connects with the people he is representing. In our office, we met with teachers, health care providers, student groups, and even world-class brewers and dairy farmers. As a member of the foreign policy team, I also met with members of foreign parliaments, a former minister of the environment, and several ambassadors.
Fellows in DC may also work with home office staff in the state. Although the fellowship does not provide travel funds, it is helpful if the fellow can make a few trips to the state to get to know the people in the office, take meetings with constituents, and better understand the landscape.
Most people do the fellowship after completing their doctoral work. I did mine in my tenure year. There are merits to both. Newly minted PhDs can job hunt throughout the year, but that involves pressure. Mid-careerists like myself don’t have the discomfort of precarious employment, but by Hill standards, we’re old. Congress is a hotbed of youthful ambition that buoys the institution and keeps it current. But it can also feel like a playground for entitled kids, whose penchant for argument and competition can obscure genuine concern for real-world implications. My office had a terrific balance, and I learned quite a bit from people of all ages and backgrounds.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for those in mid-career involves the structure of the working day. At Fordham, I work in a private, well-located office in the middle of Manhattan. And, as a professor, I largely decide the schedule of my days and the content of my work. On Capitol Hill, private workspace is severely limited, and you never know what work will come your way (this can also be part of the fun). Congressional offices open in the morning and close late evening; staffers work at least five days a week, with periodic recesses. For me, the structure of the working hours was a huge culture shock. Staffers, and fellows, also work much of the summer.
In congressional offices, work is typically divvied up according to subject area—Education, Defense, Labor, Environment, Health, etc. Content and priority generally depends on the committee assignments of your boss, but not necessarily. I worked with staff members on a range of bills—student loans, the Senate Budget, the Farm Bill, the “historic” immigration bill, and legislation aimed at revamping GDP to account for care work, environment, and social inequality. I have since written on these issues, and the experience has significantly broadened my range in the classroom.
Each fellow enters with a different set of reasons for spending a year on the Hill. I wanted to work for a particular senator, but the fellowship also had obvious benefits for my research.
There are broader reasons for why this fellowship is important, however. Policymakers can benefit greatly from sociologists’ capacity to consider the big picture—against the tendency in Congress to reduce social phenomena to legalistic frameworks and ignore the ways social problems intersect and are rooted in systems, like capitalism or patriarchy.
In turn, Congress can be good for sociology. During my first week in the Senate, I met the senator by videoconference, and he asked me how many students I teach per class. I said about 30. He smiled. “Working here is like teaching,” he advised, “only you’re teaching 300 million, not 30.” What he didn’t tell me is that the fellowship would also involve finding ways for those 300 million to teach us too. Working in public office and meeting with constituents means being held accountable for your ideas, and forces you to communicate as effectively as possible in public venues. This runs counter to the tendency among academics to write in esoteric journals and prose and deny the political nature of what we do.
Beyond that, is the bigger issue of how fellows can positively affect our political culture. The ascendancy of ultra-partisan currents in elected office has effectively lowered the quality of our thinking and discourse, and with it, our ability to solve social problems. Through fellowships like the ASA Congressional Fellowship, intellectuals may enter this highly ideological and partisan terrain as independent forces, and perhaps play some role in reversing these anti-intellectual trends.
For more information, see www.asanet.org/funding/cf.cfm.