Barron & Newburger, P.C.
Growing up, I remember hearing “I’m just a bill, sitting on Capitol Hill” on Schoolhouse Rock. In college, I was a political science major. However, I had never actually gone to Washington to try to influence the legislative process. That all changed on Leap Day, February 29, when I participated in the Commercial Law League’s Hill Day.
A group of thirteen of us from Texas, California, Minnesota, North Carolina, Idaho, Delaware and Iowa met in Washington to advance three of the League’s legislative agenda items. One of the things that sets the Commercial Law League apart from some of its peers is that it takes positions on legislative issues as well as filing amicus briefs in cases. Our group focused on bankruptcy venue reform, preference reform and FDCPA reform. I was part of the venue team.
Over the course of one day, I was able to meet with staffers from the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith, Rep. Blake Farenthold, Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. John Cornyn to talk about venue reform, an issue that I am passionate about. My five meetings were in five different House and Senate office buildings. This meant a lot of walking from one side of the Capitol to the other. According to my fitbit, I got 22,000 steps in. Here are some of my impressions.
First, Congressional staffers have to process a lot of information. Every day they meet with about 5-10 different groups of constituents or other people wanting a piece of their time. One of our group did the math and I think it worked out to about two million visits to all of the Congressional staffers in the course of a year. Out of those two million visits, Congress adopts about 250 pieces of legislation in a year. We were lucky because bankruptcy venue reform has made it to the bill stage before with serious efforts by Sen. Cornyn in 2005 and Rep. Smith in 2011. Most of the staffers we spoke to were already familiar with our issue. That was a good start.
The staffers meeting with constituents are mostly young, earnest and wonky. During a meeting with Sen. Cruz’s staff, I threw out some bankruptcy terms they weren’t familiar with and had to apologize for being a bankruptcy nerd. The Senator’s Deputy Chief of Staff replied that they were nerds too, just not bankruptcy nerds. Most of the people we met with were in their 20s and 30s, which is young to me. However, they seemed to grasp the issues quickly and were engaged. It sure didn’t feel like they were just going through the motions of listening to us.
The other thing that impressed me was how interested the staffers were about our meetings with other staffers. We may have this view of Washington where a single Senator or Rep stands up and persuades Congress with a rousing speech, like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. However, the way Washington actually functions is based upon coalition building. The staffers seemed genuinely interested in knowing what the other committees and offices were doing. One of the take-aways that I received from my visits was a promise for the staffer to speak not only to their own Rep or Senator but to talk to some of the other staffers we had met with as well.
Our cause is one that has support on both sides of the aisle, so that even though I met with all Republicans, we also talked about which Democrats would get on board. In return, I promised some of the staffers that I would either keep them informed about what others were doing or respond back with answers to questions that I couldn't answer. One of the things that is exciting to me as a long time political junkie and first time legislative activist is the ability to have a continuing conversation with the staffers I met and develop a relationship that might lead to our proposal making it into law some day.
The final impression I had is that the day was about policy rather than politics. I received a lot of questions about prior legislative efforts and how our proposal differed from others. However, no one asked who I was voting for in the primaries and no one asked for money. (I didn’t actually expect either of these topics to come up, but the fact that they didn’t was reassuring nevertheless).
There is a lot of cynicism about Congress being a place where nothing gets done due to partisan bickering. The truth is that the Founding Fathers didn’t make it easy to get legislation passed. However, after spending a day on the Hill, I came away with the impression that there are a lot of staffers who care about policy and are willing to listen. I also got to experience majesty of the nation’s Capitol and came away with some good photos. At the end of the day, I walked away with sore feet but a bit more optimism about the legislative process.