Capitol Hill Day – 11 February 2009

by admin on 2014/02/11

The crux of the experience of the Close Up program is Capitol Hill Day, when students and their teachers go to Capitol Hill and have meetings with their members of Congress or at least members of their member’s staff; the Close Up Foundation arranges the meetings.  While not meeting with their members, students and teachers are expected and encouraged to experience the workings of “The Hill” – including committee meetings (where most of the work of Congress is done) and visiting the Senate chamber and the House of Representatives chamber.

When parents and interested students would ask if participating in the program meant that they might see the President, I would explain Capitol Hill Day and explain to them that the whole point of the Close Up program was to get them “close up” to see the things beyond what television news shows them.  Sadly, only a small percentage of American adults can name anyone in government other than the President, and the purpose of Capitol Hill Day (or one of its purposes) was to get the students to see what really happens in our government – or at least a small slice of it that was better than that which they normally see.

Although the subject matter of this 2009 Close Up week series (of which this post is the third of five) seems on the surface to be a departure from the normal subject matter of Jimbaux’s Journal, regular readers here know that a big theme of my work and therefore of this site is looking beyond what we are fed by mass media and mass culture, looking beyond the “shut up and consume” mentality that pervades our culture.  So, what I told the parents and students who asked if they’d see the President on Close Up fits neatly into this overall theme of my work, and that is one of the things that I loved about the Close Up program.  Modern society has made the President and the Presidency into a pop-culture-style celebrity, but the mechanics of the national government involve members of Congress and members of the Cabinet; that – or, at least, a small slice of it – is what the students witnessed on this day, Wednesday 11 February 2009, and you will see some of that in these pictures.

Coincidentally, both US Senators serving the state of Louisiana on the date on which these pictures were taken – Mary Landrieu and David Vitter – participated in the Close Up program when they were in high school; so, both were (and, as far as I know, still are) open to meeting directly with the students themselves.  Students visiting from schools in most other states were not that fortunate, and I made sure that my students knew this so that they would appreciate it.

Most of the pictures that I took this day will not be shown here because most of them include high school students, and even though they should have all graduated by now and even though the role and capacity of which I was a participant here is all part of my past too (I “graduated” too), my gut tells me to not include those pictures in this publication, as even just one of them might not want his or her (more likely her) pictures publicized.

We start Capitol Hill Day by entering the Russell Senate office building from its southwestern entrance on Constitution Avenue and Delaware Avenue.

I can’t remember if we did anything in the Russell building other than to pass through it, and so that I could point out the offices of various Senators, like, for example, stopping in front of Sen. John McCain’s office where we saw this chair that was labeled “Keep for Kerry.”

I’m not sure if the Kerry mentioned here was the Sen. John Kerry who ran for President in 2004 and became Obama’s second Secretary of State.

Our first scheduled meeting that morning was with Sen. Landrieu’s office.  The senior senator from Louisiana did indeed come and talk to the students toward the end of the meeting, but most of the meeting was conducted by her staffers.  To keep the kids’ faces indiscernable (and the students in this picture weren’t even mine but were part of another Louisiana school that was in the same group as we were), I have reduced this picture’s size greatly.

That is Joshua Oliver, a legislative correspondent for Landrieu.  I think that I remember dealing with him in a different capacity when doing some professional journalism work.

I seem to remember that we didn’t actually have a scheduled meeting with Vitter.  I went to his office anyway, identifying myself and the capacity in which I was serving, and I think one of his staff said that he could come and talk to us if we waited a little while.  So, we did, and, eventually, this happened, outside of his office.

He actually gave the students plenty of his time; he let them ask him several questions, and he answered them.  Again, both he and Landrieu were once Close Up students themselves.

In the three times that I went there on Close Up when Vitter was a Senator (John Breaux was still Senator in my first visit to Close Up in January 2004, a life-changing experience for me), he was very talkative with students, gave them his time, and answered their questions.  The first time was in January 2005 just a few weeks after he first took office.  He was in a new office that apparently didn’t have its own bathroom for him, and I (with students behind me) chased him down in the hall outside of his office and identified myself and the students to him.  He told us that he was going to the bathroom (again, I guess rookie Senators don’t get offices with their own bathrooms) and that we should go to his office where he would talk to us after he finished in the bathroom, and he did indeed talk to the students then.

Back to 2009 and the pictures that you see here, I think that it was after this that I took the students to a Senate Banking Committee hearing.  Keep in mind that this is early February 2009, and Barack Obama had just assumed the Presidency, meaning that Congress was very busy with approving new Cabinet nominees.  Timothy Geithner had been Secretary of the Treasury for only about two weeks at this point, and he was being grilled by the committee about the financial crisis, zombie banks, and other such things.

Now, as you might expect, most high school students, even the more curious ones who would participate in such a program as Close Up, don’t know or appreciate who the Secretary of the Treasury is.  So, as they were sitting and watching Senators ask Geithner questions in the same room, they could not even appreciate what they were seeing.  However, shortly after we left, an opportunity was presented to me to show the students the significance of what they had just witnessed.  Educators like to call these “teachable moments” or some such.

We were hungry, and we did not, as a I recall, have time for a full meal.  I knew that there was a good snack bar in the basement of this Senate building; so, I took the students there.  Imagine my delight when I saw this.

That is one of my students looking at the newspapers that I gestured for them to come and see.  On the front page of all three of these newspapers (they are, in order, The Washington Post, the USA Today, and The Washington Times) was the man that they had just seen with their own eyes just a few minutes before in the Senate banking committee meeting.

To summarize the story, Geithner had been on Capitol Hill the day before, testifying to the House of Representatives, and today we had seen him testifying to the Senate.  His presentation the day before apparently did not go very well.  The headline on the article from The Washington Post reads “Wall Street Slams Plan With Sell-Off” as the Dow Jones Industrial Average had lost more than 300 points that day upon hearing Geithner’s “plan.”

This was a “whoah” moment for the students; it didn’t totally help them understand what they had just seen, but it made them realize – aside from my own testimony and preaching, which is only worth so much – that they had indeed witnessed something significant.  If upon seeing this they would go home and research this stuff and pay more attention to it in the future and gain a better understanding of it all, then we can call this a success.

I seem to recall that the next thing that we did was go into the Senate chamber and the House of Representatives chamber, but I don’t recall what happened there other than some vague memory of a debate over a cabinet appointee in the Senate chamber, which, again, is something likely to happen shortly after a new President takes office.  I guess if I cared enough I could look up the Senate’s schedule or history and see what was discussed that day.  That nothing particularly special was happening in either chamber doesn’t mean that going there is a waste, as students can at least go into the chambers and experience what being in them is like.

Since we had an afternoon meeting scheduled with newly-elected Representative Anh “Joseph” Cao from the New Orleans area, my choice of going into the full chambers before then was dictated by geography.  The Senate and all of its offices are on the northern part of The Hill, and the House of Representatives and all of its offices are on the southern side of The Hill; so, I was trying to eliminate backtracking as much as I could.  Also, we did finally eat a meal in one of the House office buildings.

Many of the students were excited to meet Cao, especially the Vietnamese-American students.  Cao’s story is very interesting, and his ascendancy to the office was somewhat of a fluke in Louisiana’s heavily-Democratic heavily-black 2nd Congressional District.  He was the first Vietnamese-American member of Congress, and he served one term, being soundly defeated for re-election by Cedric Richmond.

Yes, he really is only about five feet tall; most of the students, even the female students, were taller than he was.  He is very soft-spoken and unimposing, and the students were satisfied with meeting him.

We ended Capitol Hill Day by getting a little bit away from legislating and legislators.  We visited the Library of Congress’s Jefferson Building.

This place is truly impressive, a true temple to knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, a shrine for the seeking of truth.  Of course, even though we went there, we only got a very cursory understanding of the Library of Congress.

After that, it was time to put the kids on the buses to send them back to the hotels (where they were under constant adult supervision from Close Up staff.)  Capitol Hill Day 2009 was a resounding success.

I can’t remember exactly what some of us teachers did, but the restaurant and bar scene in DC is interesting.  Many friendships were made, some that I maintain to this day.

This is an interesting Metro map, and I think that it might be outside of the Republican National Committee’s headquarters, but I really don’t know.

The Metro itself is interesting.

So ended Capitol Hill Day 2009, the last of four Capitol Hill Days that I experienced, but we have two more days to see on this trip.  Stay tuned.

Thanks.

Jimbaux

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Hank February 11, 2014 at 15:41

Jimbaux, thank you for this inspiring essay. I had never heard of the Close Up Program, let alone Capitol Hill Day. What you and others in the program have done is admirable and hopefully rewarding for the students. I sincerely hope the program has continued since this occasion, and will do so for many years to come, if not with you personally, at least with others equally enthusiastic. Thank you for your contribution to our next generation’s education and leadership potential.

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2 Nancy Hudson February 11, 2014 at 17:00

Great pics, James. Is that little guy still there? If I recall, and at my age it IS “iffy”, ? I seem to remember some controversy surrounding him. OK. I just went back and read the part above the pic.

Love, Nancy

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3 Yuska TJ February 12, 2014 at 15:24

James, Don’t you remember??? We hitched a ride and went The Kennedy Center for the theater night and the comedy “Sheer Madness” unless I am mistaken you were with us and attended!!!! Great memories of DC and a guy named Jimbo. Later Gator! T. Yuska

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4 Jimbaux February 12, 2014 at 16:57

Ah, yes! Now I remember! That was a great show! Thanks! We also had drinks with Rose at some place that I can’t remember.
Thank you for the reminder, my Iowa friend, and I need to get over to your part of the world to see you one day! I actually did get there in 2012, but not in your part of the state: https://www.facebook.com/145765538814006/photos/a.519216188135604.1073741825.145765538814006/519216191468937/?type=1&theater

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