Event Recap

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.

Financial Literacy with Moneythink

By Jon Kroah

The average college student has 4 credit cards.” “18-24 year olds have the fastest-growing bankruptcy filing rate of any age bracket.” “You know something is wrong when the head of Citigroup says he’s not financially literate.”


Such were the eye-opening facts we heard this Thursday, April 2nd, at a financial literacy speaker event and policy workshop jointly hosted by the Roosevelt Institute’s Economic Development and Education Centers and Moneythink, a newly-formed financial literacy group at Columbia. David Anderson, Executive Vice President of Working in Support of Education (w!se, a New York-based financial literacy NGO), gave an eye-opening presentation highlighting the lackluster state of personal finance knowledge in the U.S. and the absence of well-funded public education initiatives across the country: for instance, he noted that the variety of financial products available to ordinary Americans has exploded over the last 50 years, and that the majority of spending on financial education comes from the nonprofit sector, with the government and the financial services sector lagging behind by an order of magnitude.

He also pointed out how a lack of financial know-how affects different groups of Americans: for instance, many college students choose where to go to school without a sound financing plan, and many domestic violence survivors are economically abused and left with little knowledge of how to manage their finances. What stuck with me most, however, was a study he cited suggesting that financial education best sinks in not when it’s delivered in a single class, but when the knowledge is refreshed over and over again.

Following the talk, the audience broke into small groups to brainstorm policy solutions: for instance, what (if any) standardized financial education programs should the government enact? How can we ensure that these programs instill lifelong practices, rather than just being another requirement in school? And how can we ensure that these programs provide sound information, rather than inadvertently serving the financial services industry’s interests at the expense of consumers?

To cap the evening off, we heard from Moneythink, a student organization that sends volunteers into underserved high schools to teach financial literacy. Having just started up on Columbia’s campus this semester, they described their vision for empowering high school students, and invited the audience to get involved as coaches. If you’re interested, feel free to hit them up at columbia@moneythink.org.


A huge thank you to everyone who attended and made this possible!

Spec Op-Ed: Participatory budgeting is a gateway, not a barrier, to the community

In response to our recent participatory budgeting event, Nikita Singareddy (Equal Justice Center Director) advocates for PB as an important gateway and relations’ building block between Columbia and the local community.


Participatory Budgeting in New York City

By Nikita Singareddy

This Tuesday, Roosevelt and the Office of New York City Council Member Mark Levine held an event on Participatory Budgeting. Amy Slattery, District 7’s Legislative and Budget Director, presented about the process itself and how it has evolved in NYC. Since its start in Brazil in 1989, there are now over 1,500 participatory budgets around the world.  In the last few years, PB has flourished in New York City, directly engaging community members in proportioning over 25 million dollars through public proposals and open vote budget decisions.

PB lets the whole community participate directly in how to spend part of the public budget. Slattery spoke about the yearlong process, starting from the development of proposals in public assemblies to decision-making in delegate committees and finally the voting process. Unlike conventional voting methods, voting on PB projects is open to anyone over the age of 14 living in the district regardless of citizenship. Consequently, it gives tangible power to community members, especially those never before involved in the political process.

Of particular importance is the type of discretionary funding that the City Council Members can allocate towards PB. There are two types of discretionary funds: expense funds that are used to pay for salaries and services and capital funds for physical infrastructure. Presently, PBNYC deals solely with “bricks and mortar” projects. That means Mr. Levine’s office and District 7 community members can only navigate projects like improvements to schools, parks, libraries, public housing, and other public or community spaces.

In break out circles following the presentation, we discussed what role Columbia students can play in PB, given its already privileged position in District 7. Some individuals further recognized the potential limitations of the equitable public spending initiative. Does PB attract those who are already politically active in the community, crowding out other quieter voices? Can PB only work fruitfully in dense areas like New York City and Boston? Across the board, attendees championed PB’s targeted public assemblies. District 7 has held PB meetings specifically for the youth, formerly incarcerated, elderly, and Spanish-speaking community members, enfranchising and harnessing ideas from groups that are traditionally less civically engaged.

We’d like to thank the Office of New York City Council Member Mark Levine for making this meeting such a success. If you would like to get involved in participatory budgeting in District 7 – or if you’re just curious to learn more – please reach out to Amy Slattery: ASlattery@council.nyc.gov

Read coverage of the event in Spec:     http://columbiaspectator.com/news/2015/02/27/students-question-own-role-participatory-budgeting