Learning Capitol Hill from the Inside

April 28, 2011

Graduate students learn from Rep. Adrian Smith in the only GW course taught by a sitting member of Congress.

Twenty-two students in GW’s Graduate School of Political Management got a unique, semester-long insider’s view into the process of running for and holding political office. The students were enrolled in The Member’s Perspective: Running and Ruling, a course offered as part of GSPM’s master’s in legislative affairs degree program and conceived of and taught by Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb.).

The class covered three major topic areas: deciding to run for office, serving in office and understanding the various spheres of influence that affect every member of Congress. Jeffrey Shapiro, Mr. Smith’s chief of staff, served as coinstructor of the course. Steven Billett, director of the master’s in legislative affairs program, said the course setup broke new ground.

“I know of no other case where a sitting member has taught a whole course. We’ve had occasions of individual lectures, but this is quite unusual,” Dr. Billet said.

The course syllabus included explorations of the motivations and decision process preceding a run for public office, the importance of the first 90 days of a member’s term, and how members balance the needs and demands of constituents, colleagues, lobbyists and other relevant groups. Readings from books by political scholars and campaign veterans were balanced with frequent in-class interactions with guest speakers, including House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)—who invited the class to meet in his office—several registered lobbyists and an experienced congressional committee staff member.

“All of these perspectives were invaluable as we discussed what influenced a member of Congress and then, from a member's perspective, how they had to balance a number of often competing interests,” explained Mr. Shapiro.

David Spanton, an Army captain and student in the course, appreciated the opportunity the class provided for in-depth, focused discussion with a current member of Congress. “To have a member of Congress teaching you is phenomenal. I’m not going to find this anywhere else,” Mr. Spanton said.

As a member of the selective Army Congressional Fellows program, Mr. Spanton is currently spending a year working as a legislative aide in Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon’s office while also completing the courses needed to earn a master of professional studies degree in legislative affairs. He said the Running and Ruling course has helped supplement his daily work on Capitol Hill by providing an academic complement to the practical experience he’s gaining.

“I got an understanding from Mr. Smith of the how and why he’s doing the things he’s doing. We’re seeing his thought process and how he balances the political side of being a Congress member with the legislative demands of the job,” Mr. Spanton said.

He emphasized that the course was not partisan, despite Mr. Smith’s use of his own district, which leans Republican, as a case study. “He’s definitely not speaking for one party over the other,” Mr. Spanton said.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House minority whip, had planned to attend a class to provide a minority-party perspective, though he had to cancel at the last minute because of a scheduling conflict.

Course assignments included a collaborative analysis of a real-life campaign scenario; a paper in which students drew up plans for how they would represent actual congressional districts; and a review of an incumbent who lost his or her reelection bid in 2010, with analysis into why the incumbent was defeated and how he or she might have won reelection.

Despite his responsibilities on the Hill and in his district, Mr. Smith attended more than 75 percent of the class meetings. “Taking part in GW’s Graduate School of Political Management’s rich tradition of preparing tomorrow's leaders was a unique opportunity and honor,” Mr. Smith said. “Finding time to teach a class will always be a challenge because of the demands of the congressional schedule, but this experience was terrific.”

Dr. Billet said that GSPM has plans to arrange for several former members of Congress, including Jim Ramstad of Minnesota, to teach courses in the future. And he said he would be happy to work with any other current Congress members who have an interest in teaching.

“Having someone who is in service to the nation in the classroom is a tremendous benefit,” Dr. Billet said. “It’s also just really neat.”

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