Roosevelt Trip to Washington D.C.: A Reflection on the Realities of Policymaking

by Upasna Saha

It is a privilege to be a student at such a politically active university as the 2016 presidential election heats up; groups across the political spectrum are holding debate watches, meet-and-greets with campaign officials, and canvassing events. It is even more rewarding to participate in an organization like the Roosevelt Institute at Columbia University, which holds weekly discussions on a variety of issues and fosters a community of people who are genuinely curious about public policy. But even as I acknowledge these incredible experiences, I’ve also noticed a rather troubling tendency amongst those of us who consider ourselves to be politically involved: we discuss a variety of issues – from Hillary Clinton’s finances to gun control to the role of media in campaigns – without providing or even considering policy proposals for these same topics. This is understandable; policy construction is daunting. It’s easy to identify a problem in our flawed political system, but, particularly as a college student with limited experience, it’s much harder to take the next step and try to actually solve the problem through reasonable policy solutions. Even Congress can’t seem to do it. Partisan gridlock and the influence of money in politics only fuel the ever-popular sentiment that government ignores the average voter and his or her positions. People have less and less incentive to actively engage with the issues surrounding them, even though this stagnation and silencing only makes it more obvious that we need comprehensive, unique policies which address our issues and can garner support across the entire political spectrum

After spending four days on a trip to Washington, D.C., with the Roosevelt Institute and meeting with bureaucrats, analysts, lobbyists, and Congressional officials of all stripes, it quickly becomes apparent that, depending on whom you ask in the political field, the preferred means to create policy differs. The media portrays two extremes of political motivation: the altruism of for-the-people idealists and the selfishness of Machiavellian schemers. But, as a staffer for Congressman John Conyers sagely said to us, “If The West Wing is at one end and House of Cards at the other, the reality is somewhere in the middle.” And that general sentiment was reflected in the various methods we heard of attacking the multitude of issues the country grapples with.

The think tank approach is to examine raw data, make observations, and target observed phenomena through policy initiatives. Depending on the type of think tank, what actually constitutes as data may differ. For an organization like the Center for Strategic and International Studies, qualitative data is more important than quantitative data. Meanwhile, a domestically focused organization such as the Center for American Progress uses more quantitative research to address larger goals like reforming sentencing for non-violent crimes. By understanding that data, they are able to create specific initiatives, like banning college applications asking about an applicant’s criminal and disciplinary history, to target the initial problem.

There are also organizations in which individuals advocate for an already-existing standard position. The bureaucracy is an excellent example of an institution in which such a strategy is used. The Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division is partially an investigative team in which, based on precedent, lawyers and paralegals conduct investigations to ensure that industries are indeed abiding by current laws; similarly, the Federal Election Commission reviews statements of donors and candidates to ensure that all those who are financially participating in our political process are doing so legally. This approach even exists in the private sector in a different iteration with lobbyist organizations like the Podesta Group which, by representing a client, make their specific position a reality in American politics.

Both these approaches are equally valid. In fact, in order to create effective policy, it is necessary both for those who are focused on individual issues to propose solutions and for those within the political system to ensure that those solutions are viable, and to either tailor or counter them.

Today, with increasing partisan gridlock and party polarization, a healthy dose of pragmatism is needed to survive in D.C. People simply can’t afford to champion policy solutions which fail to garner enough support; they have to be realistic about their position as it relates to those of others. The people we visited, both in the public and private sector, confirmed this. Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, was incredibly upfront about the current unviability of public financing as a solution to money in politics. Federal Election Commission Chair Ann Ravel, who sat in a panel with McGehee, was not much more optimistic about being able to fully regulate money in politics given the current vagueness of American laws which do not strictly control regulation, disclosure, or donations. Congressman Conyers’ staffer spoke about the difficulty of discussing bipartisan environmental policy when the vast majority of the Republican Congress either doesn’t believe in or refuses to acknowledge climate change.

Yet even as people we spoke to were realistic about what it takes to further policy in the current political climate, they were not disheartened, and made sure we were aware of that. Ultimately, the future of policy depends on what it has always needed: passionate people with a variety of political allegiances, with knowledge of specific issues and the inner workings of the process. Passion may have become more stifled, the process more convoluted – but, as Congressman Keith Ellison himself reminded us, if we the young don’t have any hope of being the change, no one else will.