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Rude Realities on Capitol Hill

Students visiting Congress can learn the hard way that disagreements can get personal. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Students visiting Congress can learn the hard way that disagreements can get personal. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Most of us are used to the jovial, amicable member of Congress, the one who shakes hands and listens attentively with a grinning staffer at his or her side as they greet constituents and take meetings. But what happens when Dr. Jekyll’s potion runs dry and Mr. Hyde comes out, especially when there’s a group of visiting college students? Hill Navigator discusses.  

Q. I’m a former House Leadership intern who now runs an academic college program in Washington, D.C. My job is to arrange meetings with members of Congress and their constituent students, and I’ve arranged roughly 600 meetings in my job.

I had a few meetings today and in one of them, some of the students brought up Cuba and the discussion got a little heated. While there was some good back-and-forth, in my opinion, the member was unnecessarily rude to the students in his answers and he raised his voice on occasion. The students expressed concern to me after the meeting that they felt intimidated. Is there any way I relay their concerns to his chief or scheduler in a respectful way, yet also expressing my disappointment? I want to maintain a relationship with that office, since we always have students from his district, but if the member is going to act poorly again, I may avoid him in the future. Thoughts?

A. Ah, the whole conundrum of politics-can-be-much-uglier-than-we-thought and what do we do about it?  

Taking students to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress is admirable. It gives them a firsthand perspective for how government works, and the trip to D.C. itself is formidable for many students who live in other parts of the country. (Yes, even to some New Yorkers, this can be a cool city.)  

But these are college students who are old enough to know that all the emotions in “Inside Out” are not happy ones, and that reasonable people disagree and sometimes get angry about it. Use this as an opportunity to talk about why some members of Congress (and people in general) feel strongly about certain views, and how one can properly react in situations when the person they’re dealing with becomes visibly upset, or even rude.  

No matter how charming a life they might lead, these students have bumps, disagreements and disappointments ahead of them. Knowing how to handle such discord is a valuable skill that will serve them well, long after their visit to Capitol Hill is over.  

Also, a member of Congress who gets snippy with students is likely to be much harsher behind closed doors. Complaining to the staff may yield sympathetic nods, but it’s not likely to change behavior. Assuming there was no unreasonable or inappropriate behavior, you’re dealing with one of the many members of Congress who sheds the good-guy persona on occasion. I’m sorry to learn about your students’ experience, but you’re in a good position to explain to them why political arguments carry strong weight and policy decisions have serious implications. Knowing how to keep their cool in the face of confrontation is a skill that goes far beyond something taught in a classroom.  

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