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Congressional Fellow Update

Finding a Hill Placement as an ASA Congressional Fellow

by George Dowdall

I have almost completed my first month working as ASA Congressional Fellow for Senator Joseph R. Biden of Delaware. I function as a legislative aide, participating in drafting legislation and staffing the Senator. In a future issue of Footnotes, I will share my work project; this essay describes how I came to live and work on Capitol Hill.

The ASA Fellowship was funded so that sociologists could learn from the inside about how Congress works, and to show the uses and contributions of sociology to public policy. My application focused on one (and as I have since found out, very narrow) topic: the reauthorization of the Ryan White Care Act, which provides federal funding for services to people with AIDS. I chose this topic because of my own personal interest. I also had served recently as a consultant to Matthew McClain, a leader of a major national AIDS policy organization.

I began attending the weekly meetings of NORA-National Organizations Responding to AIDS-as it planned reauthorization. These trips to Washington were also a chance to visit ASA and to begin talking with Congressional staff. I gradually realized that these talks were functioning as my orientation to my fellowship. While ASA staff are unusually helpful, the fellowship is more like a hunting license, and each fellow in effect constructs his or her own experience.

Very useful encouragement and advice came freely from previous ASA fellows, such as Lois Monteiro, Richard Gelles , Catherine Berheide , and Robert Wood Johnson Fellow Dick Levinson . Rachel Gragg, the most recent ASA fellow, gave unique advice, since she had completed her fellowship serving with Senator Wellstone (D-MN), and then had accepted a position on his staff as a legislative assistant dealing with welfare issues. I also got invaluable advice from a friend just leaving a high Senate staff position of many years' standing.

Should you work in the House or the Senate? Capitol Hill staff point out some features of the House that made it seem somewhat less desirable to me: its post-Gingrich highly partisan nature, that its members are up for reelection every two years and are constantly running, that its staffs are smaller and less specialized, and that quarters are very cramped. On the other hand, access to the Member is far more frequent and sustained, and politics far more present. I had very positive interviews with extremely bright staff for a House committee and with the personal staff of a Congressman, but decided to choose the Senate.

Should you work for a Democrat or a Republican? Your own politics may suggest an answer, and I felt far more comfortable approaching Democrats. But consider that in the Senate, and especially in the House, the party in the majority gets to call the tune to a remarkable degree. The majority sets the agenda and schedule of each chamber and its committees, has far larger staffs, and usually prevails in the highly partisan atmosphere of the current Congress. You will see different things depending on your choice. I was glad I took the time to interview with members of both parties, but also pleased to end up with a stalwart Democrat.

One very senior House staffer advised me to choose a member whose work I admired and on whose staff I would like to serve; make sure the staff people seemed congenial and their office "fellow-friendly"; and try to find an issue to work on that seems personally important. He emphasized the criteria in that rank-order.

Talking with previous fellows and current staff is invaluable, and a few preparatory visits to Washington extremely rewarding. A few Web and print sources help in figuring out whom to contact. The Almanac of American Politics provides lively and informative essays about every member of Congress, the committees they serve on, and what is on the political agenda. The Senate website (, provides individual sites for members and committees and links to the Library of Congress site.

I decided to approach members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. I wrote a letter that stated I was an ASA fellow whose costs were entirely picked up by ASA (a very important point!); able to work January to June 2000; and interested in health care, substance abuse, AIDS, etc. The letter ended with a brief biographical sketch and a comment about my interest in visiting the Senator's office soon. Rachel Gragg urged me to make sure each letter showed my knowledge of the Senator's record or particular interest in these issues. I faxed and e-mailed the letter to each Senator's legislative director, and got responses from most of the offices. A few were flat turndowns, usually citing having no room for another fellow, but several ended in invitations to visit. Each visit was usually with either the health legislative assistant (LA) or the Legislative Director, who oversees all of the LAs.

All of the visits were cordial and informative, and by late December I had a few offers or overtures. At this point, I also expanded my search, interviewing with Senator Specter's (R-PA) Appropriations Committee (about AIDS funding) and Senator Biden's (D-DE) personal office (because of Biden's interest in youth substance abuse and criminal justice). The last meeting was with Biden's chief of staff and legislative director, both of whom were enthusiastic about my coming to work on substance abuse and college student binge drinking (a topic that Biden had addressed in a 1998 Senate resolution).

So I accepted Senator Biden's invitation. As predicted by all the ASA Fellows I consulted, this fellowship is already one of the most rewarding personal and professional experiences in my life.

George W. Dowdall
ASA Congressional Fellow
Office of Senator Joseph R. Biden
221 Russell Senate Office Building

George Dowdall is the 2000 ASA Congressional Fellow, on leave from St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, working on the personal and committee staff for Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) from January through June 2000.