Last week, thanks to the University of Pittsburgh's Institute of Politics and the Elsie Hillman Civic Forum, I was able to participate with their annual Legislator for a Day program, a part of Pitt Day in Harrisburg. With this opportunity, I was able to shadow a state legislator at the Pennsylvania capitol for a whole day and see politics and policy making in action. As someone who wants to work in government, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to spend a day in an environment similar to one in which I would be working later in life.
I was doubly blessed: I was able to shadow my own representative, Rep. Bryan Barbin! I spent the day following him to committee meetings, the House session, the Democratic caucus, and meetings with outside groups. We were told that we were coming to be passive observers and not make judgements in the moment. After reflecting on my time in Harrisburg, here's what I've learned:
Your voice after the election matters.
All of the legislators I spoke to said something very similar: they were pushing legislation because it benefits their constituents. Their constituents asked, so they were going to try and deliver. Freshman representative Maureen Madden specifically said something very interesting: her first 100 days in office are spent learning about and listening to the needs of the communities she represents in order to better understand what she needs to do while in office to help them. When you call or send a letter to your state representative, it matters, and they listen.
The "politics of policymaking" is sticky business.
As much as legislators want to help (and do help!) their constituents, at the end of the day, it's still political. When you think about partisanism, political factions, and most tensions in government, it's due to politics, not policy. The policy, whether it's good or bad, is subject to politics, which is where problems start to come into play. Legislators must work in the delicate balance between what their constituents want, what lobbyists want (which isn't always bad - often, lobbyists are simply activist groups looking to help), and what is feasible in terms of the budget. It's a political game, and some players are better than others.
State representatives are very in touch with their districts.
Since Rep. Barbin and I are from the same area, we talked a lot about things happening in and around town, and he was incredibly knowledgeable about just about everything happening in Johnstown and at Pitt-Johnstown. He also comes back to Johnstown periodically while working in Harrisburg. Rep. Barbin is very in touch with his district and understands its needs (as do all of the other representatives - see point one). All legislators understand that in order to do their job to the best of their abilities, they must keep in touch with their constituents.
Homework is involved.
Rep. Barbin had two meetings with outside groups the day I was there, but the work started well before the meetings. He got all of the information he could about the groups, the people representing them that day, and the reasons they were coming in. He wanted to know as much as possible before these groups ever stepped foot in the door because he needed these meetings to be quick and concise - no time for asking basic questions once the meeting began.
Teamwork is essential.
In Rep. Barbin's office, he had an executive director (essentially his chief-of-staff) and a secretary. The three of them worked together to research groups coming in, put together the legislation going into the House from their committee (Rep. Barbin is the head of the Game & Fish Committee), and many other things. Most people think that government officials work and make decisions on their own, and that anything they do is solely because of them (or their "fault," as most people say about government). But nothing could be farther from the truth - the staff is just as important as the legislator themself.
The West Wing "walk and talk" is real.
In case you were wondering.
My day at the Capitol taught me a lot about politics and policymaking, and that knowledge and this experience will be invaluable as I start my career in government and public policy. I have a better working understanding of policymaking in practice, which is better than anything I ever could've learned in a textbook or in a lecture hall. I feel more in touch with the political process than I ever could've hoped.
(Thanks to the University of Pittsburgh's Institute of Politics and the Elsie Hillman Civic Forum for taking a chance and bringing a regional campus student with you for Legislator for a Day, thanks to the incredible Pitt students I met on the trip for being so wonderful, thanks to Megan Soltesz for coordinating the day in Harrisburg and my strange and arrival and departure, and a huge thank you to Rep. Bryan Barbin for letting me follow him around for the day! I learned more than I ever thought I could, thank you for letting me be a part of your day! And vote Bryan Barbin for Commonwealth Court!)
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