WASHINGTON (BP)–Answering phones. Juggling schedules. Responding to the questions and concerns of hundreds of constituents. All within walking distance of the U.S. Capitol. For four graduates fresh out of Union University, Jackson, Tenn., this is the stuff dreams are made of.
Capitol Hill staffers Jay Bush, Andrea McDaniel, Jeramee Rice and Matt Thomson have joined the ever-increasing number of 20-somethings who descend on the offices of our nation’s capital each year, with hopes of making a difference and learning something along the way.
Meeting in the Senate Rules Committee boardroom, they discussed their experiences in observing the relationship of faith and power.
Q: As staff on Capitol Hill and as Christians yourselves, how do you incorporate your faith within this political environment? Let’s start by talking about why each of you chose to come into politics and what you hope to do.
Matt: I don’t really have any specific reason why I wanted to get into politics. It’s always been something I’ve been interested in. I majored in political science and did a few internships over the summers. As far as what I want to do, I’m starting law school, and at this point, my goal is to become an attorney.
Jeramee: I’ve been interested in politics since I was in high school. It’s one of those issues that transcends all other subjects — people talk about it all the time and it’s a subject that everyone has an opinion on. I’d really like to work in international relations, something overseas. I think I’ve always leaned towards the chance to work with international issues and other cultures.
Jay: I feel like public service is a higher calling, even though politicians get bad reputations a lot of times. So far, I guess I haven’t become jaded by anything — the people I have encountered have all really tried hard to do the best thing for those who elected them. As far as what I do after I leave Washington, law school is an option, maybe business school.
Andrea: I have grown up watching politics with my family, but I always thought that I’d do something in missions, which I saw as being able to help people on a macro-level. It’s a long story, but I think ultimately I will do full-time church work. Though I’m not doing it directly, my boss is working on a macro-level and since I’m part of his team, I’m also part of the effort to help the people in his district and to make policy for the nation and international relations. It’s my way of being a small piece of accomplishing significant change.
Q: As people of faith, what’s it been like coming to Washington and working on Capitol Hill?
Jeramee: It’s a big difference when you’re around Christians and people of faith all of the time, and then you come to a city where it’s not so automatic. Sometimes it’s hard to try and keep a positive attitude — to show that I’m living for something else other than myself. If people try and knock you down, it’s not an intentional thing but I think just the environment that we’re in.
Q: So how do you keep a positive attitude?
Jeramee: I just know that I’m not going to be here forever. My two goals when I leave here is to have people say he smiled a lot and he’s a nice guy, and I hope they realize that it’s not anything that’s me but the One who is living inside of me.
Andrea: I’ve found that it’s been just as easy for me to pursue my walk with Christ here because of the great church I’ve been able to plug into. I go to Capitol Hill Baptist and it’s there that I’ve found people who are involved not only in Capitol Hill but other government agencies and businesses just like any other city. I’ve found that the people that I’ve encountered here and the friends I’ve made — even if they’re not Christians — these are people who are looking to be a part of a bigger picture.
Q: It seems that the overall perception of Washington and Congress by other Christians is that politicians are out to promote themselves and aren’t thinking about the people they’re representing. What do you say to that?
Andrea: I think that most of the congressmen are here for a good purpose and they’re here seeking to represent people. I don’t think that people are up here trying to make underhanded deals, but that they’re here trying to do what’s right. I think they have a genuine concern for the people that they represent.
Matt: Self-promotion, which all members engage in, in no way decreases their faith and their representation of their constituents. If I’m a constituent, as long as I’m being represented effectively, I don’t really care whether or not my senator or congressman is engaging in self-promotion. It’s a necessary evil that I think is just the nature of the job.
Jeramee: I think a lot of the self-promotion by leaders and by their staff just further represents the people. If you looked at any particular day in one of our offices, you’d see that much of it is directed toward the constituents.
Q: What were some of your first impressions of Washington. Have any of those ideas changed up to this point?
Jeramee: I think a general feeling is that the people who have these jobs as staffers are the best and the brightest and in a lot of situations that’s true, but a lot of times you can also feel like a trained monkey could do your job. It seems like so many of the Capitol Hill staffers are just out of college and are so young. They’re just getting their first experience and it’s a great opportunity, but it somehow has lost the aura that I guess I came expecting.
Andrea: I’m still surprised by how young all of the staffers are. I think I was expecting people here to be older and have all of these different degrees — like I was going to walk into a situation where people are more prepared than they are. I thought I would be in over my head, but I found out there are people here just like me.
Jeramee: Many people don’t realize the amount of turnover that is here in Washington. If you’re here a year, you’re doing well. A lot of offices don’t expect their staffers to stay longer than six months. Everybody has this idea that we never work on the hill and that we get paid great, but we could walk two blocks away and get paid much more than we do right now, and work shorter hours. Twelve- to fifteen-hour days are not unusual.
Matt: A lot of people view Capitol Hill as a gateway to the city. You come here and work first, and then go to work for a lobbying firm. They wouldn’t just hire you off the street — you have to get in here and experience it first. A lot of people leave here and work for a firm or for the White House.
Q: Do people still vote with conviction? Are legislators easily swayed by their particular party?
Jeramee: Speaking generally, I think a lot of times votes are done first with how you truly believe but also in recognition for what your party needs. If your party is going to pass something with a huge majority and it’s something you just don’t agree with, then you can take the hit and vote against the party. You definitely have to have your argument for and against it at the very onset and know why you believe the way you’ve voted. Especially because of the way news is communicated now, with e-mail, etc., you can be sure that you’re going to get a response the very next day.
Jay: There are a lot of other issues, like abortion, where I think conviction plays a big role. One of the biggest issues that came through a few months ago was the normalization of trade relations with China. That’s something that a lot of us struggled with because Christians are persecuted in China. The question was, do we shut those people off from the rest of the world or do we give them the opportunity to have some Western and Christian ideals come into their nation? A lot of the members who are Christians really struggled with that one.
Jeramee: I think a lot of times bills that are brought up in the House are more faith- or emotion-based than what moves through in the Senate. My take on things is that you’re going to be involved in discussions that are constitutionally based, spending-based or ideologically based on how we should do things like education — rather than whether or not to put the Ten Commandments up in schools.
Matt: It took me a while to realize that bills that come to the floor are only a small percentage of what bills come to Congress.
Q: One last question — among people in your generation, is there growing interest in politics?
Jay: I don’t think there is among people our age. I wish there would be because I think there are a lot of issues that affect people our age that don’t get much coverage or attention by members of Congress because the people who are calling in are middle-age or senior citizens.
Matt: People think they’re involved when they become passionate about popular issues. They seem to pick and choose, because it seems cool to be for something. I think people who are truly active are active across the board. Unfortunately, those numbers are kind of few when it comes to the younger generation.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo title: CAPITOL HILL EXPERIENCE.