Backyard Talk

The Halls of Capitol Hill

by Liz Goodiel, CHEJ Science & Tech Fellow
Capitol Hill is a busy epicenter of political movement and policy change. The halls of its buildings are flooded with congress men and women, staffers and schedulers hustling from one meeting to the next. Every few years, citizens across the country elect a representative that will fight for their constituency’s concerns. That man or woman will daily attend numerous meetings, conferences, debates, and state site visits all in an attempt to fight for their constituency’s concerns. To an outsider, Capitol Hill and all it beholds is something of a complex systematic mystery. Its infrastructure enables citizens to hold faith that their concerns are heard and being fought for. 
Over the last few weeks, members of CHEJ have met with dozens of Congress staff members, both within the Senate and the House of Representatives, Democrats and Republicans alike. From meeting to meeting, we entered the decorated conference rooms, sat in the neatly organized plush leather chairs, and discussed the intentions of our visit in a punctual 30 minutes. Our meetings were always with an office staffer, given that most Congressmen have extremely busy schedules. For most appointments, the script was similar. We introduced our work, specifically with Superfund, discussed our connections with their constituency, presented the problem and introduced a potential policy solution. The experiences and responses we received, however, could not have been more different.
In most meetings, the staffer came prepared with a business card, a note pad, and a few questions to ask throughout the meeting. Some individuals were highly engaged and gave positive feedback about our efforts. They were encouraged that their Congressman would support or in the least look at any materials we provided. All could not concretely speak on behalf of their representative; however, some staffers gave hope and optimism in working on a solution to a problem impacting most of their voter base. 
Most notable were the few meetings in which the staffer did not engage in conversation, ask any questions, or even open their notebooks. Their eyes glazed over in partial interest of our meeting and left with no intentions to follow up. Why were these particular meetings most noteworthy? We went into each meeting discussing a real problem that many of their constituency were facing. However, because of party alignment and committee membership, certain policy concerns were not even worth discussing with the representative. Although we did not experience many of these meetings, it was interesting to compare the staffers’ levels of involvement in our conversation over a substantial health issue. 
At the same time, I have been given the opportunity to speak with a handful of community leaders from varying states across the country (including Alabama, North Carolina, Texas and West Virginia) that are tirelessly fighting for the health and safety of their communities within the Superfund program. These leaders have fought for years for the cleanup of their communities and for the health and safety of the neighbors. They have stood in the streets educating their community members on the problem that is plaguing their residents and have consistently reached out to their political leaders for support. 
Having the opportunity to meet with a handful of the staff responsible for influencing our policy change was a very rewarding experience. It was exciting to experience a partial view of the mystery system that is our legislative body. However, it is still very hard to have a completely optimistic opinion on the outcome of our meetings. Although many staff members were open to understanding our work and sincerely interested in deliberating the matter with their Congressman, those meetings were clouded by the tough meetings from party members with no enthusiasm to experiment outside of party lines. After meeting with the community members from across the country, and hearing how policy change could absolve some of their most serious concerns, it is discouraging to see how political lines could run so deep that it prevents conversation and change.