The Pearson Fellowship allows Foreign Service Officers the opportunity to work on Capitol Hill for one year, during which we are granted an extraordinary bird's eye view of the legislative process. I am one of the Pearson Fellows for 2011-12 and have been very grateful for the opportunity.
I was fortunate to visit Washington, D.C. as a youth with my family. We stayed with family in Maryland and visited the great number of museums, monuments, and other attractions for which the District is known. One of the most powerful memories for me was our visit to the Capitol. It truly was the people's place -- I recall being able to walk throughout the Senate and House office buildings as well as the Capitol, even dropping by our congressman's office. While security has changed the procedures, all parts of the Capitol remain accessible. Visitors still have full range of the office buildings once they complete a security screening required of all, staff and visitors alike.
Each morning, I enter my office building and see the large school groups and families visiting, as well as advocates, lobbyists, and citizen activists. Some groups wear t-shirts with their organization's name or dress in coordinating colors. Doctors who are part of medical groups often wear their medical coats. But, they're all here on Capitol Hill to tell their stories, ask for support, and add their voice to the legislative process.
As longtime Speaker of the House Thomas "Tip" O'Neill is credited with saying, "All politics is local." While Senators and Congressmen view, analyze, and decide on issues through many lenses, the constituent lens is very powerful. In public speeches, both on the floor and in hearings, Members will often refer to how an issue affects his or her state and its citizens.
It's difficult not to be inspired by seeing the democratic process unfolding firsthand, but one does not need to visit the congressional offices in-person to take part. One can call, e-mail, fax, or write a letter. In my senator's office, all these forms of communication are logged and, of course, responded to.
Whether they are coming in person, or sending a letter, some groups are well-oiled machines, dispatching hundreds of constituents to deliver their message. The other end of the spectrum is a lone constituent who is concerned or works for a particular cause. And, of course, many fall in between. Yet, they all share the same goal: to inform their representatives of their views and in doing so, helping to shape the legislative agenda on that topic.
As a diplomat, my job requires me to engage on a variety of topics with my counterparts representing other governments. The lessons I've learned about our own legislative process will better inform my interactions with foreign diplomats. But, on a personal level, listening to and becoming aware of constituents' concerns has been one of the most meaningful parts of my time on the Hill. I will be mindful of the issues raised by my fellow Americans in the halls of our Congress and remember what they said to me as I represent the United States abroad -- something I never imagined I'd do when I first visited Washington as a youth. Today, I am honored to be serving our country as a diplomat, and can't imagine a more rewarding career, whether I am working at home or abroad.